Why Trump needs to roll back criminal penalties for noncriminal conduct

For example, Eddie Anderson of Idaho took his son camping in the wilderness, searching for arrowheads. They didn’t find any, but they were searching on federal land, which is prohibited by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. They both faced a felony charge, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment before they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were fined $1,500 each and placed on probation for a year.

Some of these criminal offenses are contained in federal statutes, which prescribe an estimated 4,500 crimes, according to a study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker. To help put that number in perspective, the Constitution mentions three federal crimes by citizens: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. Around the turn of the 20th century, the number of federal criminal statutes was as low as dozens. Essentially, over the last hundred years, federal statutes carrying criminal penalties have grown at an exponential rate.

The number of criminal statutes — laws passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the president — is dwarfed by the number of regulations carrying criminal penalties. The total number of these regulations is difficult to count, however, it is estimated to number roughly 300,000. Perhaps most disturbingly, these “criminal regulations” are written by unelected bureaucrats, yet still carry the force of law.