Hatch, Lee address Judiciary Committee advocating criminal justice reform

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee spoke Monday at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

Lee is an original co-sponsor of this legislation, which has strong bipartisan support in the Senate. President Obama is a fervent advocate for criminal justice reform, according to a press release issued by Lee’s office, and dedicated his most recent weekly address to the topic. In Lee’s address, he said:

Since my time as a prosecutor, I have been concerned by the excesses of our federal criminal justice system.  That’s why, more than two years ago now, Senator Durbin and I first introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act.  We had seen welcome reductions in our crime rate, and we wanted to couple that progress with reforms that would make sentencing more fair and efficient without reducing public safety.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act achieves that goal.

Our criminal justice system has to be pliable enough to apply in many different situations. Prosecutors and judges must have the ability to impose lengthy sentences on serious offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety. So this bill leaves untouched the maximum penalty levels that exist under current law, and for some offenders, it increases those punishments.  It also does not eliminate any mandatory minimum sentences but instead takes a targeted approach, reducing the harshest mandatory penalties and providing limited relief for low-level offenders with limited criminal history.

It is not just to keep people in jail until they are 70 or 80 just because they sold drugs three times fifty to sixty years ago. Unfortunately, this is precisely the situation we have created with our lengthy mandatory prison sentences, as those of you who have heard me tell the story of Weldon Angelos well know.  Sentences like these are just too high: they impose real costs, both human and financial; they are out of step with American tradition; and they have to be fixed.  It’s not sufficient anymore to say that sentences like these – sentences that don’t fit the crime – are the cost of doing business.  They aren’t – we can fix them, and this bill does.

Lee’s opening remarks can be viewed here, in addition to his exchange with Deputy Attorney General Sally Quinn Yates. His questioning of former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, Brett L. Tolman. can be viewed here.

Hatch, who is a member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke on the importance of including a default “mens rea” requirement in criminal justice reform efforts as a means to combat overcriminalization by ensuring that individuals are not charged as criminals for conduct they did not know was wrong.

Mens rea is a Latin word used in law that, simply put, refers to a person’s state of mind involving criminal intent as a necessary element of a crime.

Hatch said that he was “puzzled and disappointed” that the Senate Judiciary Committee’s current criminal justice reform bill does not contain any provisions to shore up mens rea protections.

In recent weeks, Hatch’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system have been lauded by conservatives, a release from his office stated, and proposals to shore up criminal intent requirements have received support from both sides of the aisle in the House, along with a growing bipartisan coalition that includes the Heritage Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ABA and other groups.

Hatch outlined three points about default mens rea; he said:

First, such a provision would not override existing standards set forth in statutes.  All it would do is set a default for when Congress has failed to specify the criminal intent required for conviction.

Second, a default mens rea provision would in no way limit the authority of Congress or agencies to create new criminal offenses.  All it would do is require them to be more thoughtful about selecting criminal intent standards.

Third, a default mens rea provision would have no impact on statutes or regulations that prescribe civil penalties.  It would apply only to criminal prosecutions, where the question is whether to take away someone’s freedom or impose other criminal penalties.

Senator Hatch’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery, can be found here.

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