If you reside in America and it is dinnertime, you have almost certainly broken the law. In his book Three Felonies a Day, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average person unknowingly breaks at least three federal criminal laws every day. This toll does not count an avalanche of other laws — for example misdemeanors or civil violations such as disobeying a civil contempt order — all of which confront average people at every turn.
An article in the Economist (July 22, 2010) entitled “Too many laws, too many prisoners” states,
Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan.
By contrast, in 1970, less than one in 400 Americans was incarcerated. Why has the prison population more than quadrupled over a few decades? Why are you, as an average person and daily felon, more vulnerable to arrest than at any other time?
There is a simple answer but no single explanation as to how the situation arose or why it continues to accelerate out of control. The answer: a constant flood of new and broadly interpreted laws are criminalizing entire categories of daily life while, at the same time, the standards required for arrest and conviction have been severely diluted. The result is that far too many people are arrested and imprisoned for acts that should not be viewed as criminal at all or should receive minimal punishment.
In some cases, the violated laws are so obscure, vague, or complicated in language that even the police are ignorant of them. In other cases, outright innocence is not sufficient to escape the brutality of detention.