Congress looks at laws that criminalize non-criminal behavior

Lesley Clark
McClatchy News

WASHINGTON — Abner Schoenwetter, a Miami seafood importer, spent six years in prison, paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees and is at risk of losing his home.

His crime? Agreeing to purchase lobster tails that federal prosecutors said violated harvest regulations — in Honduras.

Now Schoenwetter, 64, is a convicted felon with an ailing wife, no job or right to vote and three years of supervised release ahead of him. But he’s also a star witness for congressional efforts aimed at stemming what a growing number of legal experts and lawmakers consider “overcriminalization” — the federal government’s penchant for writing new laws to criminalize conduct that could be addressed with fines or other remedies.

“We must put an end to the notion that we need to prosecute every individual for every perceived offense,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee that last week held its second hearing on overcriminalization. “We continue to lock up people for offenses that should not even require incarceration.”

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