by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The most technical bill to be introduced focuses on a more wide-reaching—and possibly more impactful—concern than drugs or mandatory minimums. The collective work of Republican Sens. Hatch, Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Texas), David Perdue (Ga.), and Rand Paul (Ky.), the Mens Rea Reform Act (MRRA) would create a uniform standard for criminal intent in federal laws that otherwise lack such a standard.
There are no uniform standards for mens rea—Latin for “guilty mind”—across federal law. Instead, a patchwork of rules and Supreme Court standards determines the relevancy of criminal intent to punishment: one could violate one of the hundreds of thousands of federal criminal statutes without meaning to and still face federal prison time for doing so. A study conducted by the Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that in the 109th Congress (2005-2006), 57 percent of nonviolent criminal statutes lacked an adequate mens rea requirement.
“This is something that in law school, in your first year criminal law class, you’re taught is a traditional requirement for prosecution,” explained Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. “But that tradition has been slowly eroded over the last few decades. The Mens Rea Reform Act does something important insofar as it goes a long way towards restoring that tradition.”