On October 17, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania released a new report entitled More Law, Less Justice, an analysis of Pennsylvania criminal law that shows that, with few exceptions, each year the General Assembly passes new and redundant crimes and harsh new penalties.
The non-stop expansion of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code has come during a decades-long drop in crime rates across the commonwealth, meaning that, even as crime has decreased, incarceration has steadily risen.
The current Pennsylvania Crimes Code was codified in 1972, it listed 282 offenses covering almost every conceivable crime. Since that time, the legislature has made countless unnecessary changes and additions.
By 2010, the criminal code contained 636 offenses.
Today, there are more than 1,500.
“The spirit of criminal law should be in protecting the community, realizing justice for victims of crime, and ensuring that those individuals who serve their time for committing an offense have a clear path to reenter society,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This report makes clear that, for far too long, Pennsylvania lawmakers have engaged in a manic sort of lawmaking, which prosecutors then embrace as they look for any edge in pushing defendants to take plea deals.”
With this ever-expanding set of criminal laws, prosecutors can package together a number of charges for a single crime, the ACLU argues in its report.
“When faced with a variety of charges for a single crime, a person is much more likely to take the plea deal offered by the prosecutor and spend time incarcerated or under supervision without ever getting their day in court,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and lead researcher on the report. “We don’t need more laws. We need more justice.”
The report makes three recommendations to lawmakers in Harrisburg to help stem the problem of the expansion of the crimes code.
First, lawmakers must stop passing legislation that adds criminal offenses.
Second, any new law should require an existing crimes comparison statement.
Finally, the Pennsylvania General Assembly should recodify the crimes code.