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Federal Crime Policy: Time for a Moratorium

Before the late 1960s, crime was rarely on the federal government’s agenda—for at least three reasons. First, most legal experts and judges thought that the national government had no constitutional role in crime control. Second, the public at large had no expectation that Washington would, should, or could do much to combat crime, and most members of Congress behaved accordingly. Third, many leaders and citizens in the South feared that if the federal government started passing criminal laws, it might make civil rights violations a federal crime.

Over the past three decades, all three of these barriers to an expansive federal role in crime control have fallen. After the late 1960s Washington’s role in crime grew as the power to regulate interstate commerce was more broadly interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. For example, the Consumer Credit Protection Act of 1968 made loan sharking (loaning money at exorbitant interest rates and enforcing repayment by the threat of force) a federal crime. When this law was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled that even if loan sharking was a purely local activity, it might “affect” interstate commerce, and so Congress was free to regulate it. By the early 1990s,more than 3,000 activities had become federal crimes, and federal judges had hundreds of state and local criminal justice agencies, especially state prisons and local jails, responding to their orders on matters of policy, administration, and finance.

John J. DiIulio, Jr.

Former Brookings Expert

Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society - University of Pennsylvania


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