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Hindsight Tells Us Mandatory Minimum Sentences Don’t Work

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion


Rep. Ilana Rubel D-Boise


Rep. Christy Perry R-Nampa

As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20-20. Unfortunately, in Idaho, hindsight can get you 10 to 15 – years in prison. Such is the legacy of our state’s mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses. With 25 years of data in hand, hindsight now tells us that mandatory minimums for drug offenses make no sense and should be repealed.

Idaho’s drug “trafficking” laws do not require actual selling - merely possession. If you commit a “drug trafficking” offense, which triggers such a sentence, even if you have no prior record and aren’t selling the drugs, you get between one to 15 years in prison. Period. The judge cannot look at the unique circumstances of the case or the individuals involved. For almost every other crime (including very serious crimes like rape, arson, human trafficking, second degree murder, even cannibalism!) judges have discretion to look at the facts and set an appropriate sentence.

The original theory behind mandatory minimums was deterrence. If potential offenders knew drug sentences would be harsh and unavoidable, they would refrain from using and trafficking drugs. Legislators also thought the drug possession thresholds would ensure the harshest penalties would fall on the most hardened drug kingpins. That was 1992. Twenty-five years later, very few “kingpins” are jailed in Idaho, but many ordinary citizens are.

While virtually every category of violent crime dropped substantially nationwide between 1990 and 2010, drug arrests went up 80 percent. Idaho reflects this national trend, with drug offenses climbing steadily after the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing. The Idaho State Police reports that between 2008 and 2013, 35 percent of arrests were for drug and alcohol related offenses. But, alcohol-related arrests went down, while drug arrests increased. Based on the numbers, it is clear that mandatory minimums have failed to even slow down the drug trade.

Last March, we introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal mandatory minimums. One judge testified that she is often required to hand down harsh and unreasonable sentences because of Idaho’s sentencing requirements. The judge talked about a girl who had just graduated high school and was pressured by her boyfriend into driving with him in a car that contained drugs. Even though she had no criminal record and was clearly not a drug dealer, she faced having her life ruined by years of imprisonment under Idaho’s inflexible sentencing requirements. We heard many similar stories, describing young people whose futures were destroyed by a mistake for which Idaho’s laws allow no forgiveness, rehabilitation, or redemption.

By enacting Idaho’s mandatory minimum drug sentences, the legislature substituted its own judgment for that of judges who learn the facts of each case and hand out sentences professionally. Judges can always throw the book at those who truly deserve it, and can hand down sentences, which far exceed the current minimums where the facts warrant it. While Idaho had good intentions 25 years ago, it’s time we made a decision based on what we know today. Hindsight tells us Idaho’s mandatory minimums for drug crimes have run their course, and we need to let out elected judges do their jobs.

Representative Ilana Rubel is the Assistant Democratic Leader in the Idaho State House of Representatives. An attorney, Rubel represents District 18 in Boise. Representative Christy Perry is a Republican member of the Idaho State House of Representatives. She represents District 11 in Nampa.


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