On Wednesday, Jan. 20, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “The Adequacy of Criminal Intent Standards in Federal Prosecutions” at which Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell testified, among others. Her testimony and a good deal of the discussion during this hearing reflected an unfortunate disregard for the importance of clear intent requirements in criminal laws. I commend to readers the written statement submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), which demonstrates the centrality of clear intent requirements and the importance of this legislation.

For several years now, unprecedented bipartisan support for an array of criminal justice reforms, including addressing criminal intent deficiencies, has been building. Leaders from across the political spectrum have reached across the political divide to work together for a fairer, more rational, and more humane criminal justice system. This emerging coalition seeks to restore a measure of restraint to a criminal justice system that is out of control. The United States has more than 2 million people behind bars, recent FBI statistics indicate that we arrest more than 14 million annually, and we have more than 70 million adults with a criminal record.  

These shocking statistics do not make the case that this is a nation of criminals; rather they reflect an unprecedented and unrestrained use of the prosecutorial power of government to regulate all manner of disfavored social and personal behavior. There are many ways to address this problem. One modest, but critical step is to ensure that there is clarity in the criminal law, and that we do not enact vague criminal provisions and count on prosecutorial discretion to ensure that they are not misapplied. Recently proposed legislation in the House and Senate that would provide a default intent provision where a statute is silent on the level of intent necessary to brand a person as a criminal is a responsible, measured, and incremental step to reign in governmental abuse of its prosecutorial power.

Contrary to the suggestion by Caldwell at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the proposed legislation would not impede the government’s authority to prosecute terrorists, those who harm children, or anyone else who engages in criminal wrongdoing, as suggested repeatedly and incorrectly by Caldwell at the hearing. In fact, her specific examples are flat out wrong because the Hatch bill has exemptions from the default application that would fix the problems DOJ raised. What it will do is restore the fundamental moral anchor of the criminal law: it will require prosecutors to prove that an accused person has some culpable mental state before stripping them of their liberty.

When the government brings to bear its most awesome power short of warfare, the power to prosecute an individual, it has an obligation to do so with precision and clarity, so that the average person can understand what is illegal. A fundamental principle of law is that to establish criminal behavior it must be demonstrated that a person committed a bad act, and did so with some culpable mental state.

Unfortunately, the federal criminal code has exploded from a handful of criminal provisions a century ago to what is now estimated to be more than 4,500 criminal statutes, and hundreds of thousands of additional criminal provisions in federal regulations. In its headlong rush to criminalize, Congress has become careless by writing laws and authorizing agencies to enact criminal provisions that can send people to jail, but do not define the required criminal mental state. That failing opens the door to prosecutorial abuse. Nonetheless, the Department of Justice is raising concerns about the proposed legislation. Heaven forbid we should actually make prosecutors prove that someone actually intended to commit a crime! 

What the DOJ criticism does not recognize is that criminal intent reform merely provides that if a criminal law or regulation lacks a prescribed mental state then judges and prosecutors should presume that there really is one. It does not undo any criminal provision that already has a prescribed state of mind. Government prosecutors can still go after people to their heart’s content, and, despite claims to the contrary, they can do so based on willful, reckless, or negligent behavior if that is what the law provides. And they can even prosecute based on strict liability – that is without showing a guilty state of mind – provided that is what the law expressly authorizes. But if the law is silent, rather than ceding to prosecutors unchecked authority to wield the prosecutorial power indiscriminately, this new law provides a modest brake on that power by requiring proof that the person knew that they were breaking the law.

Reimer is executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).