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Ranking Member Nadler Opening Statement for House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance Hearing on “Overreach: An Examination of Federal Statutory and Regulatory Crimes”

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening this important hearing.  Roughly a decade ago, we learned through this Committee’s bipartisan Overcriminalization Task Force—of which I was a member—that there are simply too many federal criminal laws on the books, that their reach is often too broad, and that too many individuals are jailed for far too long because of them. 

For too long, Congress—under both parties—has created new offenses or expanded existing laws in response to a national crisis, daily headlines, or highly publicized tragedies—often federalizing crimes traditionally prosecuted in states—without inquiry into whether the federal government should be involved at all. 

Instead of playing politics and trying to prove who is toughest on crime, we should be doing more to prevent crime before it even happens. For instance, we could address substance abuse and mental health disorders, end the school-to-prison pipeline, cut off the iron pipeline that funnels guns into major cities like New York and Philadelphia, or provide real solutions for the unhoused. 

Nonetheless, I am pleased that we have the opportunity to tackle the important subject of overcriminalization today, which has long been recognized as a major contributing factor to both mass incarceration and overpolicing in America. 

But let’s be clear: this hearing should not be about Donald Trump or the January 6th rioters. The courts will decide whether they were properly charged.  Nor should it serve as a platform to undermine the federal regulations that keep us, our constituents, and our communities safe. 

While overcriminalization in the regulatory context is certainly cause for concern, we should remember that regulations ensure that we breathe clean air, drink clean water, consume safe food and medicines, and that our loved ones work in safe environments.

This hearing should be about the countless individuals—mostly black, brown, and poor—who, for decades, have borne the brunt of the overuse and abuse of criminal law in the federal system.  As the number of federal criminal statutes has ballooned, overcriminalization has had wide-ranging negative impacts on individuals who are at a social or economic disadvantage—whether by exploiting already existing disparities in access to legal resources, by leading to the increased surveillance and targeting of minority communities by law enforcement, or by driving mass incarceration.  The Department of Justice, and particularly the Bureau of Prisons, continues to grapple with the costs of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, both fiscally and with respect to other resources such as manpower.

That is why Congress should be working together to craft legislation that ensures that the resources of federal agencies, federal law enforcement, and federal courts are used most effectively and not wasted on the enforcement of crimes that are better handled by the states. 

If we are to have a real discussion about the problems associated with overcriminalization and solutions, we must first recognize the many forms that overcriminalization takes in the federal criminal justice system. 

It occurs most frequently through federalizing crimes traditionally reserved for the states; adopting duplicative and overlapping statutes; enacting vague or broad criminal statutes; and enacting criminal statutes that fail to set meaningful mens rea standards.  

Whether Republican or Democrat, we should all agree that the resulting broad expansion of federal criminal law undermines any effort to provide just and proportionate punishment for criminal conduct and lessens the legitimacy of the criminal justice system overall. 

It is vitally important that we rein in the growth of the federal criminal code and ask whether all of the laws on the books are truly necessary and whether they are accomplishing what should be their ultimate goal—the protection of the public’s safety.  

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, and I yield back the balance of my time."

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