2.2 million American citizens are currently incarcerated in America. Among those who are incarcerated are murderers, rapists, and soup slurpers. That is correct, in NJ it is illegal to slurp soup.
Laws are enacted and enforced to protect us and to maintain order in society. However, we have countless laws, mostly old laws, which serve no purpose in society. These laws are rarely enforced which is why we don't hear about it often. However, they can be legally enforced, tying up the courts and wasting tax dollars. Alternatively, there are some laws that exist for a purpose; however, a violation of these rules should not be a criminal violation but rather result in a fine.
When citizens are incarcerated for trivial, non-violent infractions, we all lose. We end up with a less resilient economy, overextended law enforcement, and fractured families. These no-value laws aren't old laws by any means; this year, in 2016, Michigan reaffirmed an anti-sodomy law that is unconstitutional as the Supreme Court deemed anti-sodomy law unenforceable.
There is a strong economic argument for decriminalizing certain laws in America. A significant amount of money is wasted when we criminalize inconsequential actions. First, law enforcement needs to spend resources finding and arresting an alleged offender. Then, the alleged offender needs to be brought to trial, which means tax dollars are spent paying the court, the judge, the jury, and the public defender. If the offender is found guilty, then resources must be spent on the correctional facility, correctional staff, and necessities for the offender. Necessities include anything from food, health care, educational obtainment and in states like California sex change surgery are paid for using tax dollars.
Furthermore, when we criminalize low level offenses, the cycle of poverty is likely to begin. When someone is jailed, they will lose their job which means upon being released, that person will have no source of income and without a source of income that person is likely to start collecting welfare. A person's chances of getting a new job will be negatively impacted by their criminal record which means that a person will likely stay on welfare for an extended period of time.
Overextended law enforcement and the effects on public safety
We have a limited amount of resources to split amongst all our law enforcement needs. By trying to focus on every single law infraction, we are diverting limited resources from focusing on major issues. In NY, and many other states, Brothel Laws exist which ban 3 or more non related individuals from cohabitation. Police resources are used to follow up with non-serious infractions such as Brothel Law complaints instead of following up with more serious infractions. This by no means is a critique of law enforcement's ability to prioritize issues; but rather, a critique of the system. If a vengeful person calls in a complaint citing the Brothel Law since four women who are unrelated live together in NYC, the police have an obligation to follow up with this complaint which diverts their attention from more serious violations.
Fractured Family Structure
When we imprison our citizens, we destroy families. We take away fathers and mothers who provide a source of income and support for their family. For low level offenses, there are alternatives to correctional facilities that will allow offenders to continue to work and provide the support for the families. It is unnecessary to take a single mother away from her children, putting the children in foster homes, for an offense such as operating a hair salon without a license.
The solution to over-criminalization is two-fold. First we need to overrule and strike certain laws, such as the ban against soup slurping. And second, we need to decriminalize certain acts and instead impose a fine. By imposing a fine, we still have a deterrence for certain actions, but we won't disrupt society. A fine, both literally and figuratively, makes the offender pay for the offense. A first time low level offense should not lead to jail time.
Our legal system boasts on the having appropriate sentencing for criminal actions. Does it make sense that someone who cohabitates with four unrelated people to be incarcerated with someone who kidnapped a young child?