Is the United States becoming an over-criminalized nation? In late 2013, members of the United States House Judiciary Committee’s Task Force on Over-Criminalization were busy deliberating this topic before in Congress. The growing, combined body of criminal laws in the federal and state systems is a major concern among lawmakers who believe that the U.S. could one day become a giant penal colony.
Why is the U.S. criminal system growing out of control and eating up so much of the nation’s budget? Some legal analysts believe that mobility is blurring the lines between federal and state criminal offenses. In essence, federal crimes are those actions that violate the U.S. Code, which is passed by Congress. State crimes are violations of statutes passed by state legislatures. Furthermore, some counties and municipalities may enact ordinances that cover criminal behavior.
Federal and State Law Enforcement Agencies
Federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are tasked with enforcing criminal provisions of the U.S. Code and combating crime at a national level. States are generally free to police their jurisdictions and bring suspects to justice. However, state law enforcement agencies cannot get in the way of federal agencies.
In a small state such as Rhode Island, for example, a marijuana trafficking arrest made by the Providence Police Department could result in state charges being filed by the District Court Unit of Providence County. Likewise, a team of DEA agents investigating marijuana smuggling in Cranston can make an arrest and refer the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island for federal charges.
Question of Jurisdiction
When criminal defendants evaluate defense attorneys, the topic of jurisdiction and where the lawyer has been admitted to practice is bound to be discussed. The federal and state rules of procedure can be quite different, and courtroom trials and sentencing determinations will also present great variance.
Another difference between federal and state cases is the former is more likely to use grand jury investigations than the latter. Whereas state law enforcement agencies are more likely to conduct their own investigations and move to arrest suspects, U.S. attorneys are more likely to evaluate complaints before federal grand juries and conduct investigations in this manner.
In the state system, criminal defendants are more likely to be able to defend their cases before their respective supreme courts than in the federal system. State cases that pose significant Constitutional issues may sometimes be referred to federal courts.