When the conservative Mackinac Center and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agree, chances are there’s a story to tell. This case is no exception. Earlier this month, experts from the Mackinac Center and ACLU met for a panel discussion on Michigan’s ever-growing criminal code.
Among other things, they cited a recent study by Michael J. Reitz, James R. Copland, and Isaac Gorodetski entitled “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State.” In the study, the authors explain that “Michigan has an estimated 3,102 crimes in its statutes, including 1,209 felonies and 1,893 misdemeanors.”
But this is only part of the tale. The authors go on to observe that Michigan has even more criminal offenses outside its statutes, where various catch-all provisions criminalize actions described in the state’s administrative rules. In short, the authors conclude that Michigan has more crimes “than the ordinary citizen could hope to know and understand.” This is only made worse by the fact that many municipalities have their own criminal ordinances; and at least one state law criminalizes obsolete offenses that have not been otherwise prohibited by the Legislature.
Members of the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate are the fourth highest paid state legislators in the country, trailing only their counterparts in California, New York, and Pennsylvania. In addition to the salaries of the 148 members, the Michigan Legislature spends a great deal of money on staff, office accounts, bill printing, telephones, postage, and so on.
Yet for all that money, Michigan’s lawmakers spend very little time discussing our most significant issues. Instead, as any serious observer of Lansing can tell you, it often appears that our legislators are in the business of creating needless solutions to nonexistent problems. The theory goes something like this: If the members of the Legislature are busy passing new laws—as superfluous or unnecessary as those laws might be—maybe the people will assume that they’re doing important work. But in practice, every unnecessary bill that the Legislature prints, considers, and adopts costs us more.
Much has been written about Michigan’s unnecessary criminal laws, such as the statute making it a 5-year felony to seduce an unmarried woman, the statute making it a 4-year felony to advocate the teaching of polygamy, the statute making it a crime to challenge someone to a duel, and the statute making it illegal to play “The Star Spangled Banner” as part of a medley or exit march. These laws are unnecessary because they are archaic, overly formulaic, or no longer relevant in our modern society.
Still other criminal legislation is unnecessary because it is simply redundant. It is this latter class of laws—those that ban conduct which is already prohibited—that our lawmakers have enthusiastically expanded in recent years. In 2014, for instance, 26 of Michigan’s 38 state senators co-sponsored a bill that would have made it illegal to coerce a woman to have an abortion against her will by committing any one of several specified acts.
Irrespective of our individual views on abortion, we can all agree that no woman should be coerced or intimidated into terminating a wanted pregnancy. The problem with the bill, however, was that each of the specified coercive acts was already prohibited by an existing law. The bill would have made it illegal for a person to assault a woman, stalk a woman, or withhold child support from a woman with the intent to pressure or coerce her to have an abortion. But assault, stalking, and nonpayment of child support are already crimes, and the new bill would not have provided any longer sentences or stricter punishments for these already-existing offenses.
The bill ultimately died in the House of Representatives, where it was never reported out of committee. But other bills that would create redundant criminal offenses are pending in the Legislature right now. House Bill 4187, introduced on February 11th and cosponsored by 30 of Michigan’s 110 state representatives, would make it a crime to maliciously damage, destroy, remove, or deface a street sign, light pole, or traffic signal. You don’t have to be a lawyer or legislator to know that these behaviors are already prohibited by law. Another bill, Senate Bill 55, would make it a crime to hunt game with unmanned aerial drones. This bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting further action in the House. However, no one seems to remember or care that there is already a Michigan statute making it illegal to use any remote-controlled device or mechanical equipment to shoot or kill game. This existing statute certainly encompasses the use of aerial drones.
Michigan has big issues that need solving. It’s sad that our well-compensated state legislators spend so much time debating and prohibiting conduct that is already illegal, but so little time fixing Michigan’s real problems like roads, schools, and the economy. In Lansing, not unlike an alternate universe where real problems don’t exist, passing redundant and unnecessary legislation has become an expensive, misplaced priority