20130712 misslibertyarrested photocom157971580 150At a time of historically low rates of crime, the federal prison system is operating at almost 40 percent over capacity. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service found that the federal prison population has grown by almost 790 percent since 1980.

Congress wants to know why federal prisons are bulging at the seams. They have launched an investigation into the proliferation of federal criminal statutes.

Federal lawmakers have been creating on average 55 new “crimes” per year, bringing the total number of federal crimes on the books to more than 5,000, with as many as 300,000 regulatory crimes. Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes.

The problem is known as overcriminalization and it is not just a federal problem. There is no dearth of criminal statutes on the state level. For instance, Texas lawmakers have created over 1,700 criminal offenses.

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Panic Street Lawyer: Driving me backwards

Sunday, 07 July 2013 06:00 AM Written by

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Although direction is a theme of this week’s PSL, I will not be previewing tomorrow’s performance in Pittsburgh by British boy band One Direction. However, the band’s scheduled July 19 performance in Kansas City produced a hate-filled statement this week that, in its own way, connects to another PSL theme: freedom.

It is the celebrations in Pittsburgh for two leading historians that makes “reverse” my one direction this week. Today is David McCullough Day in the city, and yesterday was Charles McCollester Day here.

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The Cautionary Instruction: Athletes gone wild

Friday, 05 July 2013 06:00 AM Written by

20130605wap Hernandez 150Former New England Patriot, and NFL Pro-Bowler, Aaron Hernandez is in jail, without bond, charged with murder. Apparently, he is now under investigation for a double homicide in 2012.  Hernandez like any other person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

However, any presumption that the NFL doesn’t have a “thug” problem has long ago disappeared. Guns and ammunition seem to be as much a part of some NFL players’ belongings as a helmet and chin strap.

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Panic Street Lawyer: How SCOTUS works

Sunday, 30 June 2013 06:00 AM Written by

20120401wap supremecourtAtop 150A few days before I came up with the ending for last week’s Panic Street Lawyer, I received a very thoughtful gift in the mail. It was the third printing of “How Music Works,” the eighth book written by David Byrne. The gift arrived in time to stop me from using yet another song title – such as this one -- for today’s PSL title.

Byrne is best known as a musician, specifically as the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the band Talking Heads. That band formed in 1975 and made eight studio albums, the last one in 1988. Talking Heads last toured as a live act in the U.S. in 1983 (their August 13 performance at what was then called the Stanley Theater was a truly memorable one). From that tour in support of their “Speaking in Tongues” album came the critically acclaimed documentary film Stop Making Sense. All 4 members last performed together at their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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20130628 sentencing photocom77005540 150A little more than 10 years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion in Harris v. United States holding that the Court’s landmark decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey did not apply to the imposition of the minimum portion of a mandatory sentence. Apprendi found that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial prevented judges from enhancing criminal sentences beyond statutory maximums based on facts other than those decided by a jury.

Last week, Justice Breyer changed his mind. Breyer joined with Justice Clarence Thomas and thee colleagues in Alleyne v. United States  and found that there should be no difference between facts supporting an increase in the maximum sentence and facts supporting the increase in a minimum sentence. Both required jury findings, he said.

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20130616 gaslandtwologo 150Last week’s Panic Street Lawyer began with a song title from the band The National but turned into a preview of a movie about fluid drinking and hydraulic fracturing. Lest you think that my use of the word “swallow” in the headline of a column on these topics is unique, think again.

I ended last week with a “teaser” about this week’s column: Part II would be about the public advocacy surrounding Gasland Part II, which debuts on HBO July 8. There was an advance screening of the documentary film Thursday evening here at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, the final stop on a U.S. tour by writer/director/cast member Josh Fox.

If I were to tie in today’s PSL with music, there is one obvious choice: not a song’s title or meaning, but an act’s name. They are two brothers from Surrey, England, whose “brilliant” first studio album of electronic music, Settle, was released on May 31. That album debuted at number 1 on the U.K. Album Chart. Sadly, the duo’s October 2013 U.S. tour does not include a stop in Pittsburgh. Their name: Disclosure.

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201130621wap raykrone2002 150At least 24 men convicted or charged with murder, or rape, based on bite marks on the flesh of victims have been exonerated since 2000, many after spending considerable time in prison.

A small, mostly ungoverned, group of dentists carries out bite mark analysis, and the findings are often key evidence in prosecutions -- even though there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin.

The FBI doesn't use it, and the American Dental Association does not recognize it.

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20121224 pasupremecourtlogo 150The PG's Paula Reed Ward reports on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's rejection of a legal challenge to the Commonwealth's mandatory retirement age for judges, stating the proper way to change it is through state constitutional amendment:

"The mandatory retirement age was written into Pennsylvania law as part of the 1967-68 constitutional convention, and under the law can only be changed with legislation being passed in two consecutive sessions to be followed by a statewide referendum."

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