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Does Mens Rea Reform “Provide Cover” for Executives?

By Jonathan Keim | November 30th, 2015

Yes, says Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama political appointee in the Department of Justice, who last week took aim at the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts. She was specifically targeting the House mens rea reform bill, which would ensure that to be convicted of a federal crime, a defendant must have a minimal level of criminal intent. Here’s what Yates said, as quoted by NPR:

[The bill] would end up meaning that some criminals would go free as a result, because we simply would not be able to meet that standard of proof. If this proposal were to pass, it would provide cover for top-level executives, which is not something we think would be in the best interest of the American people.

Ms. Yates caricatures mens rea reform as a protection for rich defendants, not for ordinary Americans, but she is wrong. Consider the experience of Lawrence Lewis, for instance, who became a federal criminal because he did something noble: He diverted sewage away from a retirement home’s sickest residents and into an outside storm drain that he thought was connected to the main sewer system. The federal government prosecuted him.

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