On September 19, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) issued a press release stating that the bipartisan authors of a 2015 landmark criminal justice reform bill were preparing to reintroduce that legislation. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, to which Sen. Grassley will grant new life, was part of a widespread effort at criminal justice reform that appeared to have died with the 2016 election. A centerpiece of the effort would have clarified and enhanced the mens rea (or mental state) necessary for conviction: in the House version, a defendant could be convicted only if she knew she was engaged in criminal activity; the Senate version was even more defendant-friendly, requiring willful participation.
Criminal justice reform has a laudable overarching ambition—to reduce sentences and incarceration rates, especially for minor drug and firearms offenses. As Yale Law Professor Gideon Yaffe writes, this would benefit “those who are especially ill-treated by the criminal justice system: the poor and racial minorities.” But these efforts are being championed by some unusual suspects: Republican members of Congress, who don’t ordinarily vie for more leniency when it comes to street crime, and the Koch brothers, who also are not usually poster boys for the plight of the underclass, who are over-represented in criminal prosecutions, convictions and America’s prisons. Continue reading