Palmer George & Taylor PLLC

Idaho sentencing reform bill spotlights mandatory minimums

The rationale underlying proposed criminal reform legislation in Idaho mirrors what is similarly stated in many other states also serving up reform measures these days.

And that is that: Take the handcuffs off judges deliberating over sentence determinations, and let them exercise their learned discretion in an unfettered manner when they pronounce judgment on criminal defendants.

The would-be law mentioned above is Idaho House Bill 179, a bipartisan effort that was introduced in the Idaho Legislature earlier the month. If enacted, the legislation would eliminate the curb on judicial discretion that current law imposes in cases where drug trafficking is at issue. In those matters, Idaho law mandates mandatory minimum sentences.

And that is wrong, says Rep. Ilene Rubel (D-Boise), who introduced the bill.

For starters, she contends, mandatory minimums tie a judge's hands when he or she sees a defendant who differs clearly from a hardened offender. In many cases, a mandatory minimum scheme forces a judge to impose a draconian sentencing outcome on even a first-time nonviolent offender who would be better served by an alternative disposition.

That frustrates the courts, says Rubel. And, in turn, it contributes materially to rising costs in the criminal justice system. Rubel points to the millions of dollars that Idaho taxpayers cough up annually to keep nonviolent offenders behind bars.

What Rubel and other reform advocates advocate is restored judicial discretion that allows for a considered evaluation of the differences among defendants and an outcome that optimally promotes justice in each given case.

And Rubel notes that the elimination of mandatory minimums will not hinder judges from handing out suitably harsh sentences when they deem it necessary.

After all, she notes, they have discretionary powers to do so.

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