Mens rea is a criminal law concept that says in order to commit a crime, a man must have intended to commit the crime; he must have had a “guilty mind.” Lack of this guilty mind doesn’t mean the man didn’t do anything wrong; he may well have, and a trial and a jury can make that determination—it would be civil wrong, for which he still would be held accountable on that jury deliberation. He just didn’t commit a crime.
In addition to the current move in the Senate to reform sentencing and jail terms, some Senators want to clarify the specifics of mens rea in criminal law.
The House Judiciary Committee last year passed a bill on mens rea…reform that would create a default standard for criminal intent in instances when no standard exists. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte would like to see it pass along with sentencing reform.
Both Senator Chuck Grassley (R, IA) and President Barack Obama (D) disagree with mens rea reform and for largely the same reasons, and they’re moving to block this reform.
Grassley is blocking it because
…strengthening the requirements for criminal intent would make it harder to convict corporations than under the current amorphous state of the law.
Obama wants to block it because
…a default standard of criminal intent would make it harder to prosecute companies for regulatory violations.
This is a cynical reading of Government’s role in trials. The purpose of bringing charges and having trials isn’t so prosecutors can get convictions and look good in the shower or otherwise have something to show for their taxpayer-funded paychecks. The purpose of standards of guilt or innocence in criminal law—or civil law, to stretch for a time the definitions of guilt and innocence—is not to stack the deck against the defendant.
The purpose of these things is to provide justice for the people wronged and for the people accused.