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Congress Takes Much Needed Step Forward on Over-Criminalization

By Alex Berger, Legislative Assistant, ACLU at 4:59pm

Earlier this month, a high school honors student named Kiera Wilmot was charged with felony discharge of a weapon on school property. Her crime? Creating her own science experiment.

When Kiera mixed several household chemicals together in a plastic bottle, she caused a small explosion in her school's parking lot, hurting no one and causing minimal damage. But now she faces up to ten years in prison and a felony criminal record for a crime she had no intention or desire to commit.

Kiera's story is just another victim of our country's out-of-control criminal code. Over the last 30 years, the number of federal laws on the books has doubled. Meanwhile, in the same time, the federal prison population has increased by nearly 800%, and the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons has ballooned to over $6 billion annually.

Fortunately, Congress wants to do something about it.

Last week, the House Judiciary committee announced the creation of a new, bipartisan task force aimed at reviewing the criminal code and developing bipartisan proposals for criminal justice reform. The task force, led by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), will also comb through the code and identify unnecessary and ineffective criminal statutes for elimination.

With limited financial resources , soaring national debt, and one in six Americans below the poverty line, shouldn't we find a better use for the $6 billion in federal tax dollars than locking up the largely minority, non-violent men who fill our prisons? Shouldn't our police and prosecutors be able to focus on serious criminals, instead of kids like Kiera? Shouldn't our judges be allowed to consider the circumstances and facts of each case?

Sending people to prison should be the option of last resort, not first. This task force is a promising step toward real change, and the ACLU will continue to advocate for a criminal justice system that keeps communities safe and treats people fairly (regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account), and uses our taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely. Stay tuned.

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