In 1972, there were 282 possible criminal charges a Pennsylvania prosecutor could bring against a person accused of breaking the law.
Those charges, enumerated in Pennsylvania’s crimes code, outlawed offenses ranging from murder to petty theft.
In the past four decades, they’ve nearly quintupled in number — a trend that’s helped Pennsylvania’s prison populations skyrocket, according to a report published Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s crimes code now contains 1,500 unique offenses, ACLU researchers found, giving prosecutors a dizzying array of charges to bring against alleged offenders.
The proliferation is the result of a decades-long, bipartisan legislative trend that has dire real-world consequences, Nyssa Taylor, legal counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a phone call with reporters Thursday.
The expansion of the crimes code means that more people are being charged with crimes, Taylor said, and makes it more likely that prosecutors will secure convictions and lengthy sentences.
“These new laws are a boon that allows [prosecutors] to bring numerous charges for a single crime,” Taylor said Thursday.
It’s no coincidence, Taylor said, that the expansion coincides with an “explosion” in Pennsylvania’s prison and jail populations, which nearly tripled between 1978 and 2015, data from the Prison Policy Project, a nonprofit research institute, shows.
Taylor said that many of the offenses in Pennsylvania’s crimes code are unnecessary and redundant. Others arise in response to isolated events or criminal trends that grab attention in the news.
The ACLU researchers pointed as an example to a law the General Assembly passed in 2017, which created a new sub-offense for “misrepresentation of military service.”
The new entry in the crimes code allowed prosecutors to bring a third-degree misdemeanor charge against anyone “who misrepresents himself as a veteran to obtain money or other benefits.”
But the ACLU said existing charges in the crimes code — including theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, tampering with records or identification, and identity theft — “completely cover theft by anyone posing as a veteran.”
“Clearly, law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania already have all the tools necessary to protect public safety in the current crimes code,” the report reads. “But legislators keep trying to pass bills that add unnecessary or redundant offenses.”
The ACLU report also makes three recommendations for lawmakers to mitigate the trend they’ve put in motion:
Stop passing legislation that adds criminal offenses.
“Lawmakers should put down their pens and refuse to pass any legislation that would add a new criminal offense or increase criminal penalties,” Taylor said Thursday.
The ACLU, which has considerable influence on Democratic lawmakers and libertarians in the General Assembly, generally opposes any legislation that would further expand Pennsylvania’s crime code, the group’s policy director, Elizabeth Randol, said Thursday.
Require an existing crimes comparison statement.
Before lawmakers in Pennsylvania can pass any piece of legislation, staffers must prepare a fiscal note that analyzes its anticipated cost to taxpayers. Taylor said the Legislature should require a similar exercise for bills that would expand the crimes code, and complete an “existing crimes comparison statement” that would analyze similar offenses already on the books and justify the addition of a new one.
Re-codify the crimes code.
“The General Assembly should consider a major overhaul of the current crimes code,” the report reads. “The Legislature should create a dedicated task force to review the current code, drop all unnecessary and duplicative offenses, and reset the grades of all offenses in a way that truly reflects the appropriate seriousness of the crime.”
Read the ACLU’s full report here.