Crime is in the eye of the politician

The USA Today had an interesting column on the proliferation of laws that treat everything as a criminal offense.

Across the USA, legislators are criminalizing everything from spitting on a school bus to speaking on a cellphone while driving. Criminalizing bad behavior has become the rage among politicians, who view such action as a type of legislative exclamation point demonstrating the seriousness of their cause. As a result, new crimes are proliferating at an alarming rate, and we risk becoming a nation of criminals where carelessness or even rudeness is enough to secure a criminal record.

There was a time when having a criminal record meant something. Indeed, it was the social stigma or shame of such charges that deterred many people from “a life of crime.” In both England and the USA, there was once a sharp distinction between criminal and negligent conduct; the difference between the truly wicked and the merely stupid.

Legislators, however, discovered that criminalization was a wonderful way to outdo one’s opponents on popular issues. Thus, when deadbeat dads became an issue, legislators rushed to make missing child payments a crime rather than rely on civil judgments. When cellphone drivers became a public nuisance, a new crime was born. Unnecessary horn honking, speaking loudly on a cellphone and driving without a seat belt are only a few of the new crimes. If you care enough about child support, littering, or abandoned pets, you are expected to care enough to make their abuse a crime.

Then I come across this:

A House of Commons committee has recommended making it a crime to “glorify” terrorism, a proposal critics fear would erode freedom of speech and alienate Muslims.

The recommendation would bring Canada in line with a number of countries, including Britain and Spain, that have enacted similar legislation.

In the British case, glorification is defined as “any form of praise or celebration.” The offence is punishable by up to seven years in jail.

Oh yeah, Britain is a good example to follow.

The article goes on:

Forcese (University of Ottawa) warned the provision could ensnare individuals in Canada with tenuous links to terrorism, such as people expressing support for an aboriginal protest.

But Conservative MP Gord Brown, who chaired the subcommittee that reviewed the act, played down the risks of such abuses.

“Nobody’s talking about using it for that type of charge,” he said. “This is to deal with terrorist activity.”

That’s always the problem. They write legislation  and maybe even convince themselves that it won’t be used for anything but what they narrowly propose. But once it hits the streets, the police and the lawyers and those on some particular crusade interpret the wording in black and white. No one ever says, ” Well this isn’t exactly what the law was meant stop”. Then we have another law on the books that is both dumb and dangerous.

Now I’m waiting for someone to propose a bill making it illegal to question global warming. Come to think of it, that’s probably already happened somewhere.


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