Other Democrats have been criticized for it, but they weren’t in the position of actually passing legislation on the issue. As of yesterday, the most senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee is. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee is agreeing with the GOP on issues around criminal intent or default mens rea. In the coming months, Conyers in particular is sure to catch grief for his support.
Even though 14 states have already passed default mens rea bills into law, the idea is still fought hard against by the left, particularly environmentalist groups. Federal lawmakers are hit with a barrage of criticism each time the idea has come up.
But yesterday in the House Judiciary Committee, a bill was reported out of committee that would, “make a number of important changes to Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Most notably, it establishes a default mens rea standard of “knowingly,” which will apply in cases where Federal criminal law, including longstanding statutory law and established case-law, does not provide a state of mind requirement for the particular offense,” as stated by Chairman Goodlatte yesterday.
As reported in the Huffington Post this week a DOJ spokesman stated that changes to criminal intent law on the federal level would, “create confusion and needless litigation, and significantly weaken, often unintentionally, countless federal statutes,” including “those that play an important role in protecting the public welfare … protecting consumers from unsafe food and medicine.”
To make the situation even more hyper-political, a story in the Huffington Post this week emphasized that Koch Industries has pushed for the reform. But the debate on mens rea has been around in Congress for a while and was part of the debate at the end of the Over Criminalization Task Force Chaired by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
This week, led by Republican Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Conyers, House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee didn’t object to a bill, H.R. 4002. Advocates on the left, particularly advocates at the think tank Center for American Progress, have been unhappy for months that the issue is moving forward as part of the over criminalization discussion.
With all the players on the right and left who are involved in the justice reform debate, the criminal intent issue is creating a clear ideological dividing line. But so far Conyers, Democrats on House Judiciary and the Koch Brothers are remaining on the same side of the issue for now.
“We support comprehensive criminal justice reform which includes ensuring that before the government can take away an individual’s life, liberty, or property it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual had the intent to commit a crime. This is a fundamental requirement of a just and fair criminal justice system,” said Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden.
“While sentencing reform and prison reform are vitally important, mens rea reform addresses those who never should have been convicted in the first place because they lacked intent or knowledge to violate the law,” Holden added in a statement this week.
“The Judiciary Committee is engaged in a comprehensive effort to reform various aspects of our criminal justice system, including sentencing, prisons, policing, asset forfeiture, youth justice, and over-criminalization. During our review of over-criminalization issues in recent years, the Committee has heard a number of concerns about inadequate, and sometimes completely absent, intent requirements for federal criminal offenses,” said ranking member Conyers in a statement Wednesday.
“Chairman Goodlatte has asked me to work on this issue with him and I am pleased to do so as part of our bipartisan process of addressing the broader array of issues. I look forward to working with the range of those interested, in this subject, including The Justice Department, criminal defense experts, prosecutors, and corporate accountability advocates, so that the legislative process will produce an appropriate solution,” added Conyers.
While those on the right can ignore complaints on the left, Conyers has to go up against the White House, DOJ and envio groups as the debate on curbing over criminalization moves forward.