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“Obama’s Missed Opportunity on Criminal Justice Reform”

| January 14, 2016

Over at the Washington Examiner, Right on Crime signatory Jerry Madden remarks with disappointment that in a State of the Union speech that hinted at a bipartisan opportunity to pursue federal criminal justice reform–the sole line about the issue drew significant applause–President Obama ultimately failed to expand on the matter. Despite a dearth of details that could have been raised in the speech about the range of issues currently under consideration, Madden says the effort will continue nonetheless:

“Despite this disappointment, Congress will continue to consider criminal justice reform, and we are confident that the data-driven solutions that have proven to enhance public safety while saving taxpayer money will ultimately be implemented. For years, states have seen their prison populations swell to unmanageable and unaffordable levels thanks to “tough on crime” approaches that have imprisoned even the most minor offenders. In addition, there are prisoners serving time for technical violations of arcane or broadly worded laws that would convict even the most innocent person.”

Madden goes on to state that among the manifold important issues for Congress to consider is a federal asset forfeiture practice that continues despite recent acknowledgement from the Department of Justice that its equitable sharing program is suspended forthwith. While states currently cannot participate with federal authorities to share proceeds of a forfeiture under the program, federal agencies can still seize property purportedly associated with illicit activity, often times without having to prove in court that a crime even took place. Protections for innocent property owners against this practice are relatively weak at the federal level, and further reform is necessary.

Another growing concern, Madden explains, centers on the lack of adequate criminal intent, or mens rea, requirements in the criminal code and Federal Register. With 4,500 criminal statutes scattered among roughly 50 titles of the U.S. Code, in addition to the estimated 300,000 regulations that carry criminal penalties, its becoming increasingly difficult for the average citizen to ascertain the legality of any of a number of different activities. Without criminal intent requirements, such individuals risk being convicted of offenses they had no knowledge of being illegal, or any intent of committing. Several states–Michigan and Ohio, to name a couple–have passed default standards, and Madden states that Congress ought to do the same.

Photo: CBS News


MICHAEL HAUGEN is a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and its Right on Crime initiative.

His work for the Foundation has focused primarily on criminal justice reform topics, particularly civil forfeiture, prison reform and justice reinvestment, mens rea reform, occupational licensing, and various law enforcement and privacy issues. He’s also written about federal corporate subsidies, school choice, and gun rights.

Haugen is a graduate of Eastern Washington University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with Pre-Medicine Option, and a minor in Chemistry. He also holds an Associate of Arts degree in General Studies from North Idaho College. At EWU, he participated in academic research in a molecular microbiology laboratory for two years, investigating genetic virulence factors and pathophysiology in microbes.

His writing has appeared in National Review, The Hill, Townhall, Washington Examiner, Dallas Morning News, El Paso Times, Trib Talk, RedState, Ricochet, and Breitbart Texas.