Over-criminalization takes many forms and impacts the American criminal justice system in varying ways. This article focuses on a select portion of the over-criminalization phenomenon by examining two types of over-criminalization prevalent in white collar criminal law. The first type of over-criminalization discussed in this article is Congress’s propensity for increasing the maximum criminal penalties for white collar offenses in an effort to punish financial criminals more harshly. The second type of over-criminalization addressed in this article is Congress’s tendency to create vague and overlapping criminal provisions in areas already criminalized in an effort to expand the tools available to prosecutors and increase the number of financial criminals prosecuted each year. While these types of over-criminalization are not the most egregious examples of the phenomenon, they are important to consider because the statutes being affected by these legislative enactments are far from obscure and, in fact, represent some of the most commonly charged offenses in the federal system. While much has been written about the plethora of negative consequences resulting from over-criminalization generally, it is worth noting that not everyone believes these negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits that might flow from the two types of over-criminalization discussed in this article. First, some might argue that repeatedly increasing the statutory maximums for white collar offenses is justified because doing so means culpable individuals will receive longer prison sentences reflective of their conduct and, in addition, others will be deterred from committing such crimes. Second, some might argue that enacting broad new criminal provisions in areas already criminalized is justified because such enactments provide prosecutors with the tools necessary to ensure that creative and sophisticated white collar criminals are brought to justice in larger numbers, thereby deterring others from committing similar offenses. This article will examine the accuracy of the underlying premises utilized by both of these “justifications” for the over-criminalization discussed herein – (a) the assumption that increasing statutory maximums results in ever lengthening sentences for individual white collar defendants, and (b) the assumption that enacting additional laws that are vague and overlapping in areas already criminalized results in increased levels of enforcement against white collar criminals. Through such an examination, this article seeks to understand whether new crimes and punishments really achieve their intended goals and, if not, what this means for the over-criminalization debate and, in particular, the over-criminalization “justifications” discussed above.
Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) (July 28, 2011)