Invisible-People1How many laws are governing you at this very moment?

Driving across America we find ourselves constantly driving through invisible barriers where new laws come into play and old ones fade away. We have no clue as to what laws they are, or even how many, but these laws have the potential to ruin our lives.

In a country that claims to be the land of the free, the number of people under the control of the U.S. corrections system has exploded over the last 25 years to more than 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 U.S. adults, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States. The actual number of people behind bars rose to 2.3 million, nearly five times more than the world’s average.

But true criminals are not the problem.

Headlines in the New York Times have repeatedly showed us the irony of our current dilemma – “Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling,” “Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops,” “Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction,” and “More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime.”

Logically then, if crime keeps falling, we simply won’t be able to build prisons fast enough.

We can only hope that real crime goes up so our criminal justice system will have real criminals to go after.

The Number of Laws

In 1982, Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official, was commissioned to oversee a project that remains to this date, the most comprehensive attempt ever to count the number of federal laws currently in place.

The effort was being conducted as part of a long and failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.

After two full years of work, they were only able to offer an educated guess of “over 3,000” laws, which most people scoffed at.

One recent estimate that I came across was that people in the U.S. are currently governed by over 16 million laws. Because of the regional nature of these laws, few of them pertain to everyone at any given moment.

The U.S. currently boasts the highest rate of incarceration of any country at any time in history, a full 25% of the world’s prison population. We also have the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history, laws created by nearly 90,000 separate governmental entities. This spaghetti mess of rules and regulation is so complicated that virtually any person can get tripped up by them. One simple mistake may very well result in incarceration, and it goes downhill from there.

Estimating the Real Toll

According to Justice Department Statistics 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails at the end of 2009. This amounts to 1% of all adults in the U.S. In addition, 4,933,667 more were either on probation or parole.

In total, 7,225,800 adults were under control of the correctional system (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 — roughly 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population.

Going beyond those directly affected by the correction’s system are the spouses, children, family members, and friends. Estimates range as high as 30% of all American are within one degree of separation from a prisoner, and 100% are within 2 degrees.

Incarceration is a system that breeds failure.

On the prisoner level, an incoming prisoner is instantly immersed in an “us-vs-them” mindset as their surrounding community is transformed into the worst of all possible social circles.

On the operational level, success in the prison industry is not measured by how many lives have been improved, but rather on occupancy levels, the number of prison incidents and escape attempts, and how well the budget is managed.

On the justice system level, more prisoners translate into larger budgets. The system was created to protect people from criminals. It was based on the notion that if someone is removed from society they can no longer harm anyone. While certain crimes warrant imprisonment, it becomes an inappropriate form of punishment for most.

In addition to creating a pervasive prison culture within our own population, it has become culturally divisive. In 2006, blacks, which represent less than 13% of the total U.S. population, comprised 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners. The general prison population is made up of one out of every 33 black men, one out of every 79 Hispanic men, and one out of every 205 white men.

Solving the Problem

We currently have no check-and-balance system for impeding the excessive law-writing, rule enforcement, and prison-building currently taking place. Simply adding friction to the process will slow it down.

For this reason I would like to offer the following 4-step approach to solving this enormous problem.


  • Step One – Demand Visibility: Make it a requirement that all laws be posted in one central location online. As a first step towards getting a handle on the runaway law-creators, we need to create a law that requires all laws be posted on one central website online. Any laws not posted will be deemed unenforceable.
  • Step Two – Demand Understandability: Make it a requirement that all laws be written on an 8th grade comprehension level. Laws are unenforceable until they have been certified as having been written on this level.
  • Step Three – Demand Enforcement: Make it a requirement that any laws that have not been enforced in that past 20 years become unenforceable and must be removed from the list. Time spent getting rid of the clutter means less time for creating new laws.
  • Step Four – Remove Conflicts of Interest: Make it a requirement that no government be allowed to directly profit from the enforcement of their own laws. Whenever there’s a profit motive linked to law enforcement, the nature of government changes, and our humanity becomes compromised.

With a society that is already heavily invested in our current systems, and people already pre-programmed to think and act accordingly, the operating system can only be changed by rewriting the source code. In short, we need to create systems for changing the system.

My Challenge to You: I would like to challenge everyone who reads this column to convince me that this will not be an effective approach. Please leave your comments below.

Few believe this is a sustainable system.

People who enter prison cannot lead productive lives. Removing them from wage-earning positions and turning them into wards of the state is a recipe for economic disaster.

Nearly every person who currently feeds off this system, including police, judges, lawyers, wardens, and prison guards is leaching off and income stream that will soon shrivel to a fraction of its current size.

Future Justice Systems

The current justice system is a monopoly, with the irony being that they need to have their own anti-trust division take a long hard look at their own system.

Rather than using an “us-vs-them” police force, putting the first level of monitoring criminal behavior into the hands of average citizens is already doable. Camera phones with both visual and audio recording capabilities are already being used to create evidence for court cases.

A self-monitoring society is one that will assume responsibility for its own rules, morals, and ethics. Yes, there still needs to be laws, regulations, and guidelines, but the enforcement of them should be place in the hands of people who do not feel a constant need to justify their own existence.

Once criminal behavior has been uncovered, a new organization will be created to decide on a corrective course of action. Whether it will be based on a restorative justice system like many cities are experimenting with to make the injured party whole again, or whether it’s an e-justice system where a virtual judge and jury dole out an instant decision, the most likely direction will be a system that is faster, fairer, and more personalized than anything from the past. “Authentic justice” will do away with the fanfare and ceremony associated with today’s courtrooms.

Future punishment will take many forms, with incarceration only being used as the “option of last resort.”

Taking productive members of society away from their ability to earn a living, provided it was a legal income stream, will no longer be an option.

I particularly like the ideas that my good friend Jeff Samson recently suggested.

“With the advent of, pervasive camera networks, drones, satellites and “Terrabyters” and taissers it appears that typical prison systems may get challenged. Prisons are expensive commitments of land architecture, people and resources while the less expensive ability to track and control individuals digitally is growing rapidly.

Sensational news groups may do the job for us. A variation on “Entertainment Tonight” which hounds celebs may be “Convict News”, Who’s in your neighborhood now and how far did Freddy get today. Some reality shows are close to that now. It doesn’t appear that a concern for public privacy will restrain such a move based on the evening news and transparency is a very popular trend. So let’s start a show!”

I also like the idea of future technology being able to closely match the punishment to the crime.

As an example, a person who is a pickpocket will lose their ability to use their right arm for the next six years, or a burglar will lose their ability to use their legs for the next 8 years, or a rapist will experience a constant state of erectile dysfunction for the next 20 years.

As we peel away the onionskins of transparency, our options for self-monitoring and self-correction will reveal unusual new alternatives for righting the wrongs of society.

Final Thoughts

Are we truly the most evil country on the planet? That’s what our prison population numbers are saying to the rest of the world.

When systems become overbearing we lose our ability to innovate.

The current justice system is stomping all over our ability to build ourselves a better future. If we lose our relevancy, others will be quick to take over the top spot.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


12 Responses to “Hoping the Crime Rate Goes Up”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ray Hutchins</a>

    Very good thinking Tom. Thanks. This is a huge component of our broken government. I'll make sure others get to read these words.
  2. Be Be

    Only the forward thinking young men and women will come up with superior systems & technologies which will make these old systems and techniques obsolete. May we gather together around our collective visions to create and foster a user-friendly universe instead of a punitive one. I loved reading this article thank you for being part of the solution.
  3. Ed

    While I can agree with the end goal you are professing and the desire to clean up our criminal code (please do the tax code while you are at it), It might be better to understand why they are in there. I do not believe that lack of clarity is the primary issue (i.e. understanding the laws), rather more an issue of certian crimes being the impact (the link supplied is typical, but only one group of managed prisions) I think what you are asking to be done, will most likely clean up the courts more then prisions (also a good thing).
  4. Mark

    I agree with Ed; lack of clarity is not the root cause of our exploding prison population. I work in the criminal justice system, and there is nearly pervasive opinion within the system that we incarcerate way too many non-violent people, mostly for drug and alcohol offenses. We need to save the jail space for people who might hurt us, not people who we're mad at. Much of this change over the past 25 years has been driven by political reasons... being "tough on crime."
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom, You touch a difficult topic. My Dad was Public Defender, then Judge in Canon City. He received several awards for reducing recidivism. Changing visibility and readability will not reduce crime. Very few criminals do not know they are breaking the law. Your ideas are fine, just not impact makers. 1. Visibility: Require posting of all laws online. Laws not posted are unenforceable. Also post in all likely languages. As many as Wikipedia. Get translations right. >> Make source easy to find and use. Make easy connections between overlapping laws, including within a jurisdiction, across jurisdictional boundaries. Including multiple laws covering the same crime (local, state, federal, …) Will require a new bureaucracy. A jobs maker. 2. Clarity: Require all laws to be written for 8th grade comprehension level. Laws not in compliance are not certified. >> Keep words and phrases simple to parse. No confounding language. Will require a new bureaucracy. 3. Enforceability: Remove unenforced laws. >> Requires an infrastructure to accomplish. May require votes of population segments to authorize such actions. May require taking some laws to public votes. Perhaps not best use of funds. 4. Conflicts of Interest: Incarceration is a huge business, as noted. Command is top down. >> The top of any bureaucracy gets the lion’s share of compensation. This is the most interesting point and by far the most difficult, especially after creating three new bureaucracies for points above. My alternatives: 1. Education and jobs. Both outside of and inside of prisons. Few criminals want to be criminals. They just don’t have other choices. Provide education at whatever level is required. English language for those who don’t speak English. Enable GED certification, BA degrees, and even advanced degrees. >> Side point: Educate prison guards. They face very difficult social issues caused by mere association with criminals. Being poor and uneducated makes prison abuse more likely and more viscious. 2. Replace punishment mindset: Instead of conditioning for survival in an abusive environment, condition for survival in open society. Convert criminals to citizens. Does not apply to SuperMax facilities. 3. Equal enforcement: No bias by gender, race, religions, etc.. All straight by the book. 4. Simplify and publish the civil codes in a variety of venues. Include access through public resources such as libraries.
    • admin

      Gary, Thanks for your comments. These ideas may be simplistic, but the conversations being started are fascinating. If we only required all the laws be posted in one locations, I think we will start seeing dramatic changes. First, the laws, rules and regulations would all be tied to a specific geographical area. Invariable regions of the country would become defined by both the quantity and quality of laws that govern them. As an example, rankings would come out rating areas of the country with the "most laws," the "craziest laws," and the "business-friendliest laws" among others. Suddenly each community would find itself having to defend all the crazy laws it had been hiding in locked file cabinets for decades. There would be far fewer good-old-boy systems giving preferential treatment to the local elite. Bloggers would have a heyday with the data they could glean from something like this. Education programs would be good but involuntary education doesn't work, and prisons are too limiting to allow a truly open education system spring to life. It's very hard to free your thinking and build new skills when your social circles include some of the most negative people on earth. Tom
  6. Ted Martin

    Your "solutions" are simplistic. Too simplistic. 1) Legalize ALL drugs.... COMPLETLY!!! This legalization should be tried on one renewable 5 year cycle - renewable.. All current drug offenders should be immediately released from incarceration - unless other, more grevious and enhanced offences were committed to enhance their sentence. This should even include those selling to children, as long as force was not used in the offence. This would "disrupt" the cartels for a long enough period to make them inefective. A "renew" would cripple them. Legal "agents" should be licensed to produce the manufactured drugs. Agents should also be licensed to sell them. This would virtually empty the Prisons. Abortion should be totally legalized. This legalization should be tried on one renewable 5 year cycle - renewable.. Afirmative action and all other programs that tend to favor one race over another should be stopped altogether, students should be tested in the 8th Grade to determine whether their future should go toward 1) Labor, 2) further Technical training, or; 3) further Academic studies. Students who Labor or are chosen for Technical training should be given a "second chance" to seek further Academic education after each year of dedication to 1 or 2 for a period of 4 years after the 8th grade. Education should be free for everyone through Secondary School. College entrance exams should be rigorously enforced. Athletic ability would be a consideration, but should be fairly handled. Universities would either be "mostly Academic", or "mostly Athletic" Only those very "gifted" academics/athletes could attend the most prestigeous facilities. Genuine and fair testing should be done once each year between the 3rd Grade and the 8th Grade under predetermined fair and impartial guidelines to determine a Student's eligibility to advance to the next grade level. Age should be little barrier. As long as a Student were judged to be progressing, they should be allowed to progress as long as their age did not exceed three years of where they should be expected to be before the 8th grade. Standard uniforms should be issued Statewide - for both Male and Female students. Only in these ways can we improve.
  7. Randall Abernathy

    Once you are convicted and serve your time,you're free right? Wrong. I served 2 years of a five year sentence for multiple DUIs. I know I was guilty. Perfect conduct,worked every day in the kitchen,grounds maintenance,and prison maintenance. Served 2 and a half years on parole. Perfect conduct,no failed urine tests ( I don't do drugs ever), my parole officer was really impressed with me and said so. Now I'm on probation. (same case). They know I have no license but have me reporting once a month at a specific time.(It's never the same time)."Be on time or you're going to jail". "Must work 40 hours a week or you're going to jail". Where are the 40 hour a week jobs that let you take off half a day every month to report? "Pay your fine every month or you're going to jail". I manage, barely. "Pay your probation fee on time or your going to jail". So far so good. Now they want me to go to treatment,which is very expensive. Treatment for what? I don't do drugs and haven't drank in over 4 years! Just want more money? I guess so. And community service. "Do it or your going to jail". How am I going to do this? Not sure yet. It's like wrapping someone in chains and making them swim across a lake. How do they justify doing this? It's like they WANT you to go back to jail, or prison. Must be a better way.
  8. Randall Abernathy

    I forgot to mention that I am NOT a kid. I'm 59 years old and caregiver to my mentally and physically handicapped sister so going to jail would have dire consequences on her as well as me. When I mentioned this I was told "That's not my problem". Some compassion,huh?
  9. Earnan

    The problem isn't the number of laws---most are obscure, unenforced and unenforceable---the problem is the never-ending need to "do something" in a flashy simplistic manner rather than in a methodical and thorough manner. Incarceration has certainly played a major role in reducing crime---persons in prison are not out on the street committing additional crimes. What we should be worried about is the divergence between "the law" and "justice." There is absolutely nothing wrong with sticking an armed robber or a rapist in a cage and throwing away the key, or putting a murderer to death in a reasonably short period of time. But we are locking up people for nonsense. Genuinely criminal acts are treated the same as violations of obscure and confusing Federal regulations. Have a shotgun with a 18.1 inch barrel? You're OK, even in NYC or DC. But 17.9 inches? That can get you 10 years in Federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Drain a damp patch in your back yard? Could be a "critical wetland" and you're looking at potential years in lock-up and financial ruin. Fill out a tax form wrong? Prison. And so on, and so on... But at the same time there are genuine criminals. Sorry Randall, but you're one of them. Your behavior placed other people at great danger of death or dismemberment, and placed their hard-earned property at risk of damage and destruction. Drink yourself stupid without endangering the innocent. You clearly didn't learn your lesson the first time you were caught, so it is appropriate that the punishment escalates. Take some responsibility for your decisions and actions. It's clear you still haven't; instead you're whining about how mean we're being to you.
  10. Sabine

    You might find it worthwhile to read some very different perspectives of people who have been "in the trenches" and practicing very different approaches - which work extremely well, see and .

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