The Politics of a Guilty Mind

Criminal justice reform has been a topic of major focus in Congress for several sessions. On the foremost issues, both sides of the aisle have managed to agree. However, most recently, the push to provide stronger mens rea requirements and guidelines has torn bipartisan advocates for justice reform apart. One side of the debate argues that federal statutes that fail to include mens rea standards place individuals in danger by potentially prosecuting persons who did not intend to commit a crime. The other side contends that adequate alternatives and supplemental options already exist, eliminating the need to create more legislation on the matter.

Mens Rea is a Latin term meaning “guilty mind.” Legally, it refers to the mental state a person must possess during the execution of a crime in order for the government to convict said individual. State of mind instances can range from intentional acts, where the defendant consciously desires a specific, harmful result to occur, to reckless disregard, where the defendant has some notion that certain, careless acts can generate particular, often negative, results.

The reason mens rea is so hotly debated is for the fact that some statutes fail to include a mens rea element within the text. Statutes delineate what elements are associated with a particular crime. Prosecutors are then charged with the task of proving that a defendant has committed each required element and is, therefore, guilty of a particular crime. When a mens rea element is lacking, a prosecutor can simply prove that a defendant committed an act, regardless of his or her knowledge or intent. In practical terms, an individual caught walking his or her dog in a federal park with a leash longer than six feet is guilty of a federal crime without need of proving that the individual lacked knowledge of this particular rule.

Currently, two bills are running concurrently in the House and the Senate. While the language in both bills differs, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015 (S. 2298) and the Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R. 4002) both aim to add clarity to vague statutory text by creating default mens rea rules that would apply to the United States Code.

The unfortunate part of these efforts is the complication that arises with regard to specific text language in H.R. 4002 and a fear that prosecuting big corporations will become more difficult if a more direct state of mind requirement is included in important environmental and health statutes, for instance. The Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015 was last reviewed on January 20, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill. On November 18, 2015, the House Judiciary Committee held a markup on the Criminal Code Improvement Act and voted to report the bill out of committee on a voice vote.

These mens rea bills are just another area of focus in justice reform efforts. The push to include default language is to ensure that strict liability crimes are reduced down to instances of exception rather than commonplace rule. Criminal intent requirements protect Americans against unjust prosecutions and abide by the spirit of the American justice system which has traditionally embodied the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Yes, it is very important to protect against crimes that harm the public’s welfare, but the focus should always be about promoting the innocence and individual freedoms of American citizens before utilizing criminal statutes to attack “bigger fish” without regard to the “little guy.”