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The Mistaken Belief that All Strict Liability Crimes Are Morally Objectionable

New regulatory laws often include new federal offenses that fail to make clear whether an offense requires proof of any knowing wrongdoing on an individual’s part. Modern criminal codes, as a result, have departed from the traditional distinction between actions committed with and without an evil intent. Beginning in the 19th century, assemblies began to dispense with mens rea or scienter elements in criminal statutes or ordinances that were labeled “regulatory offenses” in England and “public welfare offenses” in the United States. Turning regulatory infractions into strict liability crimes because criminal enforcement is more efficient than civil enforcement does not reflect society’s serious and moral decision that incarceration is an appropriate sanction.

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