Over the last few decades both Democratic and Republican administrations have vastly expanded the number of federal crimes on the books, handing the capitalist rulers powerful tools to use against militant workers, and increasingly against each other. The number of federal crimes has increased 36% since the 1990s.
The creation of these crimes has gone side by side with the expansion of executive orders by the White House to impose legislation it can’t get through Congress; and the rampant expansion of government regulatory agencies with powers to intrude into every aspect of workers’ lives.
Using anti-labor federal regulations, a U.S. District Court judge Jan. 25 issued an order to block thousands of rail workers at BNSF from striking against onerous new work schedules. (See article.)
When the Constitution was drafted in 1791 only three federal crimes were spelled out — treason, piracy on the high seas and counterfeiting.
Nowhere are the total number of federal crimes workers can run afoul of totaled up. It is estimated that 5,199 federal crimes are on the books. Many are tucked away among the thousands of regulations passed by Congress in recent years. The sharpest rise took place 1994-96 during the Bill Clinton White House. And under Clinton the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty — an instrument of terror against working people — also rose.
The Bill of Rights — added to the Constitution by vote of the majority of states in 1791 — was forced on the federal government after an uprising by artisans and farmers known as Shays’ Rebellion. It overwhelmingly consists of strictures against government interference in the lives of the country’s population and other protections. It concludes by sharply limiting the powers of the federal government, saying, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Fewer than 3% of all those charged with a federal crime went to trial in 2018. Prosecutors intimidated defendants with threats of draconian sentences to force them to resort to a plea bargain conviction, undermining the constitutional right to a trial by jury. The federal prison population rose from 24,640 in 1980 to 153,293 today. And Congress abolished federal parole in 1984.
Under federal law there are often harsher sentences than those for the same crime under state law, and more mandatory sentences. When you’re prosecuted by the federal government it can wield all its massive resources — the FBI, Washington’s political police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; various military cops; and numerous other federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the IRS.
The propertied owners hold state power and see workers as outlaws who must be held in check. This is the role of their massive criminal “justice” system. It cannot be reformed to our benefit. But protections written into the Constitution and Bill of Rights are vital for working people to safeguard. We need to speak out whenever rights we use are threatened, no matter who is being prosecuted. Under capitalist rule and sharpening class struggle, working people need to be ever mindful that we are likely to find ourselves as defendants in the bosses’ courts.
Protections against gov’t restrictions
The Bill of Rights documents protections against federal government restrictions on free speech and free assembly, asserts the right to due process, to trial by jury, to confront witnesses against you, to a legal defense. It bars double jeopardy, saying “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” No excessive bail, nor “cruel and unusual punishments” can be inflicted.
But, as a Wall Street Journal editorial noted Jan. 22, “The Supreme Court has held (most recently in 2019’s Gamble v. U.S.) that consecutive state and federal prosecutions don’t violate the Fifth Amendment’s double-jeopardy clause.” The massive expansion of the number of federal crimes makes this even more dangerous.
It took the revolutionary war that overturned slavery for the passage of the 14th Amendment to extend protections of the Bill of Rights against state governments. It says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States … nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The capitalist rulers face a serious political crisis today. Neither of their two main political parties, the Democrats nor Republicans, are able to win stable majorities to chart a self-confident course for the rulers out of the worldwide economic slump, or prevent a rise in working-class struggle this crisis foretells.
They have no policies to prevent mounting clashes with their rivals abroad, including the threat of war in Ukraine, nor halt the instability and wars devastating peoples across the Mideast. Increasingly they turn against each other in a frenzied effort to grab control of the federal government, trampling on the Constitution and our rights in the process.
They are in full assault mode against the structures and norms of rule established by the First American Revolution, which established a constitutional republic with power largely reserved for the states. Whoever wins power — Biden or Trump — seeks to use the executive office to invoke its array of executive orders, oppressive regulatory agencies, ballooning repressive laws and cops to go after their political rivals as well as working people.
Democrats are at the forefront of these efforts today. They are pushing to abolish the Electoral College and to change the way the Senate is elected, hoping to guarantee they can win the presidency with support from a few heavily populated areas and disenfranchise those who live in smaller states and farm areas. This is the real content of their hue and cry over “voting rights.”
As conflicts between the bosses’ two main parties sharpen, working people will need to jealously guard rights we use to advance our own interests today and even more as the class struggle heats up in the years ahead.