Confusing Laws Lead to Wrongful British Conviction
This story addresses British sex offender laws, but it teaches a lesson to state and federal lawmakers in the United States: courting votes by advancing whatever new “tough on crime” legislation is in vogue only leads to confusing and conflicting legislation.
The simple question before the judges was whether the defendant was guilty of an offence of failing to register as a sex offender contrary to the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. “Any intelligent observer would have been baffled to discover there could be any doubt about whether or not the defendant was guilty of this criminal offence," said the judge, one of a panel of three hearing the case.
“For the Court of Appeal to decide the issue, we heard detailed submissions about the legislative provisions in no less than five statutes... The problem was so complicated that three judges had to reserve judgment because at the end of the hearing we could not work out whether or not the defendant was guilty. After reserving judgment we concluded that no offence had been committed. Yet the appellant had spent time in custody.”
Almost all acts or omissions that can sensibly be criminalized have been criminalized. Give it a rest, lawmakers. We don’t need the hodgepodge of criminal statutes you enact in a rush every election year. Criminal justice codes should be revised and simplified on occasion to further coherent and consistent policies. Sentencing practices in most jurisdictions would benefit from comprehensive reform. Unless legislators want to deal with the criminal justice system as a whole, they should learn to leave it alone.
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