Subsidiarity, Federalism and Federal Prosecution of Street Crime
Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 2, p. 495, 2005
30 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2005
In recent decades, Congress has expanded the reach of federal criminal law to the point where it substantially overlaps with state law. Many defendants who commit essentially local "street" crimes, such as arson, carjacking, or illegal firearms possession, now violate both state and federal law. Defendants who are prosecuted in the federal system typically face greater procedural disadvantages, higher conviction rates and longer sentences than those prosecuted for the same conduct in state court. But neither the Department of Justice nor the federal judiciary has articulated uniform standards for determining which cases belong in federal court and which do not. Rather, this issue has been left largely to the discretion of individual United States Attorneys.
The essay that follows will argue that the best source for a standard to govern prosecutorial discretion in this area is the principle of subsidiarity: the principle that higher order institutions (such as the federal government) should avoid taking over the functions or disrupting the internal life of lower order institutions (such as state and local government), but should provide assistance to such institutions where necessary. This principle would permit federal intervention in criminal matters traditionally handled by the states only where the federal government enjoys an inherent advantage by virtue of its nature as a national government. Cases could not be moved from state to federal court simply to avoid procedural or evidentiary problems under state law, to avoid local juries, or to obtain a longer sentence than is available under state law. Inclusion of such a standard in the federal prosecutorial guidelines is consistent with basic principles of federalism, and will eliminate the most egregious disparities resulting from the overlap of state and federal criminal law.
Keywords: Subsidiarity, Catholic social thought, Criminal justice, federal criminal law, criminal law, prosecutors, sentencing
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