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Clearer, More Specific, Better Criminal Laws

Sometimes, it’s the seemingly mundane that makes a difference.

On January 6, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a rule change that affirms the right of the House Judiciary Committee to scrutinize any bill that purports to pass a new criminal law or penalty or modify an existing one.

Why might that matter? Well, the Judiciary Committee oversees the federal courts as well as federal administrative agencies, including law enforcement. It knows the existing federal criminal codes (as well as anyone can); it’s familiar with the drafting of criminal laws; and it understands federal priorities and resources. It also has Subcommittees for both Crime and the Constitution, among others, so it’s better positioned to ensure that due process and civil liberties are honored in the drafting process.

For some time, a quirk had developed in the House Rules that would bypass the Judiciary Committee if a bill criminalized new conduct but did not modify an existing law. The new rule took care of that by making clear that the Committee reserves the right to review any bill that criminalizes new conduct or modifies an existing law.

The rule change was the product of a long, concerted effort by a coalition of civic organizations, all of whom agreed that allowing the Judiciary Committee to supervise criminal legislation would produce clearer, more specific, higher-quality criminal laws.

And, over time, that makes a difference.

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