Courts Rethink Approach to Drug Addiction Punishment

The Challis Messenger

By Betsy Z Russell

As state lawmakers face a pricey proposal for a $500 million prison expansion, Idaho judges have been studying the state’s felony sentencing laws and processes with an eye to reforms.

In doing so, they’ve identified outdated thinking in the state’s main law providing guidance to judges about when to sentence an offender to prison — one that could push Idaho judges to incarcerate addicts.

“When this statute was written, we didn’t know anything,” said 4th District Judge Michael Reardon, who serves on the court’s Felony Sentencing Working Group, after reading it over one more time. The law dates back to 1977. Along with factors laid out in case law, it’s the main guidance the state provides to judges on when to choose prison over probation.

Sara Thomas, administrative director of Idaho’s courts, told lawmakers last month, “Some of these things actually guide us toward imprisoning addicts.”

For example, the law, Idaho Code Section 19-2521, instructs judges to choose imprisonment if the offender is likely to commit another crime, or has committed multiple offenses. Drug possession is a felony crime in Idaho in most cases. “When you have someone that you know is an addict,” Thomas said, “it is likely that they will commit another crime.” The law also guides judges toward choosing prison if the defendant “is in need of correctional treatment that can be provided most effectively by his commitment to an institution.”

But Idaho’s prisons don’t have room to lock up everyone who needs drug treatment, Thomas noted.

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