How many laws are enough?

Driving across America we find ourselves constantly driving through invisible barriers where new laws come into play and old ones fade away. We have no clue as to what laws they are, or even how many, but these laws have the potential to ruin our lives.

In a country that claims to be the land of the free, the number of people under the control of the U.S. corrections system has exploded over the last 25 years to more than 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 U.S. adults, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States. The actual number of people behind bars rose to 2.3 million, nearly five times more than the world’s average.

But true criminals are not the problem.

Headlines in the New York Times have repeatedly showed us the irony of our current dilemma – “Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling,” “Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops,” “Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction,” and “More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime.”

Logically then, if crime keeps falling, we simply won’t be able to build prisons fast enough. We can only hope that real crime goes up so our criminal justice system will have real criminals to go after.

The Number of Laws

In 1982, Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official, was commissioned to oversee a project that remains to this date, the most comprehensive attempt ever to count the number of federal laws currently in place. The effort was being conducted as part of a long and failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.

After two full years of work, they were only able to offer an educated guess of “over 3,000” laws, which most people scoffed at. One recent estimate that I came across was that people in the U.S. are currently governed by over 16 million laws. Because of the regional nature of these laws, few of them pertain to everyone at any given moment.

The U.S. currently boasts the highest rate of incarceration of any country at any time in history, a full 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We also have the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history, laws created by nearly 90,000 separate governmental entities. This spaghetti mess of rules and regulation is so complicated that virtually any person can get tripped up by them. One simple mistake may very well result in incarceration, and it goes downhill from there.

Estimating the Real Toll

According to Justice Department Statistics, 2.29 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails at the end of 2009. This amounts to 1 percent of all adults in the U.S. In addition, 4.9 million more were either on probation or parole. In total, 7.2 million adults were under control of the correctional system (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 – roughly 3.1 percent of adults in the U.S. resident population.

Going beyond those directly affected by the correction’s system are the spouses, children, family members, and friends. Estimates range as high as 30 percent of all American are within one degree of separation from a prisoner, and 100 percent are within 2 degrees.

Incarceration is a system that breeds failure. On the prisoner level, an incoming prisoner is instantly immersed in an “us-vs-them” mindset as their surrounding community is transformed into the worst of all possible social circles. On the operational level, success in the prison industry is not measured by how many lives have been improved, but rather on occupancy levels, the number of prison incidents and escape attempts, and how well the budget is managed.

On the justice system level, more prisoners translate into larger budgets. The system was created to protect people from criminals. It was based on the notion that if someone is removed from society they can no longer harm anyone. While certain crimes warrant imprisonment, it becomes an inappropriate form of punishment for most.

In addition to creating a pervasive prison culture within our own population, it has become culturally divisive. In 2006, blacks, which represent less than 13 percent of the total U.S. population, comprised 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners. The general prison population is made up of one out of every 33 black men, one out of every 79 Hispanic men, and one out of every 205 white men.

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