Law & Principles

| December 14, 2015

Overcriminalization Compromises Public Safety

This month, the Oklahoma City Council is poised to make it illegal to smoke—even in the most remote areas, alone—in city parks and on city trails. (The prohibition would not apply to the city’s five golf courses.) It is the latest example of the dangerous desire of some politicians to overregulate citizens and overextend law enforcement resources.

The Council’s recent ordinances on truancy and standing in medians are two more examples. These provisions direct law enforcement away from serious crimes and increase the possibility of the city becoming addicted to fines. In all three cases, a person might have no idea he or she is doing anything wrong and yet be subject to enforcement action by the police.

Here are scenarios made possible by each of these would-be city ordinances:

  • Meet a friend crossing the street? Stop on a 20-foot-wide, grassy median to chat and you are violating city code and subject to a $100 fine.
  • A single mother cannot get her 16-year-old son to go to school. The second time this happens, the City Council is willing to fine mom $500 or even put her in jail for 6 months.
  • Smoking on the sidewalk remains legal, but if a young man with a lit cigarette happens to walk through an Oklahoma City park—an entirely deserted park, say—he can be stopped by the police and ticketed.

One lesson from Ferguson, Missouri, is how easily city officials can turn police officers into revenue agents. Ferguson collected one-fifth of its operating revenues from fines and court fees. Analysts from across the political spectrum have identified this use of police and the courts as a significant factor in the distrust and animosity between the public and law enforcement.

This sort of overcriminalization poses other risks. It distracts law enforcement from its core mission. It creates pretexts for police to detain and question people for minor and unintentional ordinance violations. It leaves some citizens wondering whether police are really there to protect the community. The fault, of course, lies not so much with the police as with their political leadership.

The most powerful force of any city is its police. City leaders should not so casually task police officers with punishing parents or panhandlers or trying to stamp out smoking.

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