Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, should rethink his stated intention to deny a hearing for a bill reforming Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentencing system.
The bill is a bipartisan piece of legislation cosponsored by Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, and Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. It passed the House in a 48-21 vote Monday.
But Lakey has indicated he won’t give the bill a hearing in the Senate, killing it while ducking a debate about an important issue facing the state. Instead, he plans to introduce his own, greatly watered-down version of the bill.
There’s an argument that the policy expertise of experienced chairmen can prevent bad legislation from passing, and that may be valid in some cases. But Lakey’s position flies in the face of most available evidence on this issue, undermining any claim to expertise he might make.
Decades of research on deterrence in the criminal justice system lead to a clear conclusion: Longer sentences don’t deter crime. Rather, what deters crime is the certainty of apprehension and punishment.
You’re likely to get a much greater reduction in drug trafficking by catching lots of drug dealers and giving them lighter sentences than by catching a few and sentencing them harshly.
Researchers have also dug deep to find whether longer prison stays reduce the risk that a convict will re-offend. Generally, those studies have found that a longer prison stay either has no detectable effect on recidivism rates or that a longer prison stay increases the risk of recidivism.
But tying judges’ hands to force longer sentences does have one predictable effect: It causes an explosion in the prison population. As a result of “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentences throughout the nation, the U.S. has far and away the world’s highest incarceration rate. It’s about 20 percent higher than Cuba’s rate, nearly twice as high as Russia’s and almost six times as high as China’s.
Even El Salvador, a country beset by gangs with a murder rate 10 times higher than the U.S., has a lower incarceration rate.
More comparable societies, like England, France and Germany, typically have an incarceration rate that’s between one-fifth and one-tenth of ours. Despite their comparative laxity in sentencing, they generally have much lower crime rates as well.
Idaho’s prisons are so overcrowded that the state is paying a private prison company to house some 700 inmates at a facility in Texas. And the state has kicked around the idea of building a new prison. The estimated price-tag? Half a billion dollars. You could pay for a lot of additional law enforcement with that money. The total annual budget for the Idaho State Police last year was about $70 million.
In short, mandatory minimums are a great way of spending a lot of money and imposing a lot of pain, but they provide no clear benefit to society.
Lakey may disagree with the bill and the bulk of the empirical research, which clearly supports it. That’s fine. He should simply grant the bill a hearing, make his argument, and convince his committee to vote against it.
Unilaterally preventing Senate debate on a bipartisan, sensible piece of legislation that overwhelmingly passed the House, however, is unacceptable.