The Federalization of Criminal Justice

By Gondles, James A., Jr. | Corrections Today, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Federalization of Criminal Justice


Gondles, James A., Jr., Corrections Today


Throughout my more than 25 years in this profession, first as a deputy sheriff, then as a local sheriff and now as your executive director, I have viewed with some concern the increasing federalization of the criminal justice process. This trend appears to be accelerating. Congress is now seriously considering federalization in the area of juvenile justice. Few would view this as a positive development. For the most part, the federal corrections system got out of juvenile justice in the 1970s, and there seems to be no compelling reason for them to return.

In his State of the Judiciary Report, Chief Justice William Rehnquist criticized this trend toward federalization. Criminal case filings in federal courts rose 15 percent in 1998, nearly triple their increase in 1997, only taking into account the impact of laws passed by Congress in 1992 and 1994. Clearly, the quantity of filings has increased, which will mean an even greater federal court load in the future.

The trend to federalize crimes that have been handled in the state courts not only impacts the federal judicial system but it undermines our division of powers between the federal and state governments. Due to the current political environment, Congress feels compelled to respond to every social ill or sensational crime by passing new federal offenses without considering whether the states are currently doing their jobs. Federal courts were not created to adjudicate local crimes, no matter how serious or spectacular. It's time for Congress to stop this march toward "big brother" government.

In 1995, the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is made up of all the federal judges, said in its Long Range Plan for the Federal Courts: "Congress should commit itself to conserving the federal courts as a distinctive judicial forum of limited jurisdiction in our federalism. Civil and criminal jurisdiction should be assigned to the federal courts only to further clearly defined and justified national interests, leaving to the state courts the responsibility for adjudicating all other matters." The plan laid out five types of crimes that should be considered federal:

* offenses against the federal government or its inherent interests;

* criminal activity with substantial multi-state or international aspects;

* criminal activity involving complex commercial or institutional enterprises most effectively prosecuted using federal resources or expertise;

* serious high-level or widespread state or local government corruption; and

* criminal cases raising highly sensitive local issues.

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