A luncheon with Marc Levin of Texas Public Policy Foundation

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This past September, the Houston Property Rights Association (HPRA) welcomed Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), to discuss his background and his work at the TPPF.

Levin told HPRA that he had decided to go to law school, and after clerking for Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Levin was approached to head up what was at the time a new project on behalf of the TPPF. Namely, the TPPF was starting a branch that was devoted to the issues of crime. Levin accepted the challenge and has stuck with his work ever since. Levin had just returned to Texas a few days before he spoke to HPRA from testifying in Washington before a U.S. Senate committee on sentencing guidelines, and said he was happy to be back with another group of liberty fighters now that he was back in Texas. Levin also told the audience that one of the points that influenced his decision to take on this task was that at the time he was approached, there were no other state-based think tanks or foundations that were addressing the topic of crime.

The talk that Levin gave touched on a range of issues. Levin talked about how the TPPF had been influential in promoting drug courts as a way to reduce clogging up the legal system, and as a way to reduce recidivism. This had allowed the State of Texas to close a few prisons, and reduce the cost of running the prison system. Levin did not specifically discuss the issue of drug decriminalization or legalization, as the topic was not brought up at the luncheon.

Criminalizing everything

At one point in his talk, Levin told HPRA that the federal government now has some 4,500 acts in the U.S. Code that have been defined as a crime. Furthermore, the state of Texas has another 1,700 crimes that are on the state books. One of the seemingly hopeless battles that Levin and his colleagues fight is trying to get politicians to stop criminalizing everything. Levin pointed out that the United States Constitution defines only a handful of acts as a crime, specifically elevating treason as a constitutional level crime. Another worrisome aspect of the drive to criminalize everything is that some crimes have been defined so that they have eliminated the element of Mens Rea as a necessity in order to convict someone of a crime. The idea here is that in order to be convicted of a crime, the government would need to show that you were possessed of a mindset where your intentions were to commit the crime. Eliminating the mens rea element in order to obtain a conviction removes the requirement for the government to show that you knew that what you were doing was wrong, a particularly worrisome issue when governments pass thousands of laws, and when the laws they pass are often so voluminous that the politicians themselves who pass those laws rarely bother to read them.

Promoting economic liberty

There are many fronts which believers in liberty have to fight. One of the unsung, but very important, issues that liberty fighters have to struggle against is the fight for the revival of economic liberty, something that has been continuously attacked over the past 100 years. Levin told HPRA of one of the many thankless tasks that TPPF takes on — that every other year when the Texas Legislature convenes, inevitably a few of the thousands of bills that get submitted into the hopper are from pressure groups or citizens that want some occupation to be subject to licensing. Some people go crying to legislators with a sob story about something bad that happened to them, and as what so often happens in politics, they try to get some law passed about issue X because we have to make sure that X will never happen again! TPPF reviews all the bills that get submitted and they try to talk legislators out of requiring that people working in every conceivable job field have to be licensed, which drives up costs and creates barriers to entering those lines of work. Nor is it entirely clear that licensing does that great of a job in protecting the public from harm, which is the usual rationale for passing many acts.

Levin took questions from the audience. There were many questions asked, which I did not write down, but I did ask him whether there was broad data indicating whether the criminal justice system deters crime. Levin responded that yes, there was. He cited that 75 percent of people who are charged with DWI (or DUI) offenses never repeat the offense. Levin also told the crowd that 75-80 percent of children and teenagers who have a brush with the juvenile courts, or the criminal justice system, are never indicted for an offense for the rest of their lives.

I met Marc Levin many years ago, and run into him from time to time. He has always impressed me, something that is not easy to do. Yes, we need the mob to believe in liberty (something that many of them for various reasons don’t), but the libertarian/conservative Right also needs our intellectuals to articulate our intellectual and political battles because — for better or for worse — it is people like Marc that the politicians really listen to. I hope that Marc will be around to fight those battles for many years to come.