I’ll be the first to admit that it was a mistake to support mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers during my tenure as Idaho Attorney General in the 1980s. Most observers have come to realize that long mandatory sentences are not appropriate for every offender.
Legislatively mandated sentences tie the hands of judges who are best positioned to tailor the appropriate punishment for the crimes committed by a particular defendant. And, while they do not reduce recidivism, they do needlessly inflict damage on the families of low-risk offenders.
In 2014, Idaho adopted the Justice Reinvestment Act to provide for earlier release of low-level offenders, to ensure their success by providing them greater supervision, to reduce the number of repeat offenders, and to reduce the cost of Idaho’s prison program. The legislation had broad-based support and holds out great promise for success.
Throughout the 1980s, there was a perception that judges were not being tough enough on high-volume drug traffickers. It was thought that requiring judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences would keep these big fish off of the streets and reduce the drug problem.
In 1992, the Legislature enacted legislation to require minimum sentences for persons in possession of certain quantities of illicit drugs, with longer sentences for larger amounts. The mandatory sentences were based solely on the quantity of drugs the person had.
It has not worked so well. The drug problem has gotten worse and many people who were simply users, and not a substantial danger to society, have taken up prison space and taxpayer dollars for no good purpose. The longer such people stay in prison, the harder it is to keep them from re-offending.
Having observed the judicial system from the inside for 12 years, I believe that our trial court judges have a good feel for who deserves to be incarcerated for a long stretch and who shows promise for staying out of further trouble. Our judges take into account who is before them and whether they pose a societal risk, rather than just the weight of the drugs they had in their control. That is how justice is served. It is not served by a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing where a set of scales determines the length of the prison term.
The court system has worked hard to educate judges as to the correct balance between incarceration and rehabilitation. Judges share information about sentencing for various offenses throughout the state to bring about a certain amount of uniformity. The judicial system has developed drug courts to help lower-level offenders get free of drugs and put their lives back on track. These are the measures that can reduce recidivism, salvage those who can be rehabilitated, and keep families together. Mandatory sentences do not. My 1980s mindset was wrong, as was the 1992 legislation.
Last year, Representatives Ilana Rubel and Christy Perry introduced legislation to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences in the 1992 statute. Their bill retained the maximum sentences for drug trafficking but left the length of the sentence up to the judge, who can set a minimum prison term of his or her choosing. That legislation will come up again this year and Idahoans should urge their legislators to support it.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice.