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When our country was founded, there were only three federal crimes: Treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. As of 1998, according to the American Bar Association, the number had grown to over 3,300, spread over 50 titles of the United States Code and taking up 27,000 pages. Besides these federal offenses, of course, each state has its own comprehensive set of criminal statutes, and many states still recognize unwritten “common law” criminal offenses.

Given the large number of criminal offenses, it should come as no surprise that even though we pride ourselves on giving more freedom to our citizens than any other country, and even though the bedrock of our legal system is a constitution containing specific guarantees against governmental overreaching–such as the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and religion; the Fourth Amendment, which protects persons against unreasonable searches and seizures; the Fifth Amendment, which protects persons from having to give testimony against themselves and gives persons the right to due process of law; and the Sixth Amendment, which gives persons the right to a speedy trial on criminal charges and effective representation of counsel–the United States has by far the largest prison population of any country in the world. Indeed, according to a February 2008 article published in the Washington Post and referenced in a Wickipedia entry captioned “Prisons in the United States:”

As of 2006, a record 7 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, though China has over four times the population of the US.

While American citizens normally are pleased whenever we are able to outperform China, having the highest rate of incarceration is not a figure in which we can take much pride, whether we hold the distinction because we have more criminals than any other country, or because “the land of the free” actually boasts the harshest laws in the world when it comes to inflicting punishment.

For a defendant charged with a serious traffic violation or a criminal offense, whether in federal court or in state court, a criminal defense lawyer is often the only person protecting the defendant from joining the 7 million persons who are already incarcerated in this country. A good defense attorney will review the charges facing his client; study the applicable law and thoroughly investigate the underlying facts so as to reach a reasoned opinion concerning what charges the government would likely prove at trial; advise his client accordingly; and then follow his client’s instructions to the best of the attorney’s ability, whether the client instructs him to negotiate the best possible plea agreement or to challenge the government’s evidence at trial.

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