Guest Opinions

Podium, Lindy High: Life without parole should be handed down judiciously

For the past couple of years, the Idaho Legislature has been improving the state’s probation, parole, and prison release programs.

This wasn’t a kindness-of-their-hearts sort of thing. It was far more practical.

A Council of State Governments study reported that Idaho’s 2012 crime rate was among the lowest in the nation but its incarceration rate ranked eighth. Idaho’s non-violent offenders served about twice as long in prison as the national average. Idaho’s prison population was expected to grow about 16 percent from 2014 to 2019 at a cost of about $288 million in new construction and operations.

So the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Committee, co-chaired by Sen. Patti Anne Lodge and Rep. Rich Wills, held hearings, worked with consultants, and contacted other states to find out what works and what doesn’t. In the end, the Legislature enacted a major bill to strengthen training for probation and parole officers, move nonviolent offenders out of prison at a reasonable rate, and beef up community-based treatment and support for the newly released.

A good next step would be to add more probation and parole officers to reduce caseloads. It’s unreasonable to expect one officer to work with 70-plus parolees with more than minimum contact time and attention.

Now legislators can tackle more difficult issues. Here are some ideas:

• Repeal mandatory sentences. It doesn’t make sense for presentence investigators to look at the crime, the perpetrator, the victim, and so on, and for the judge to take everything into account — charges, defenses, testimony, history — and then have it all boil down to a sentencing formula that dictates who gets how long for doing what thing.

At one time, mandatory sentencing was a popular trend. But so was the hula hoop. Today, guidelines might be useful, but statutory mandates are too restrictive. Let’s let judges do what we elect them to do: make good decisions based on the facts of each case.

•  End life without parole sentences for juveniles. No one gets a sentence of life without the possibility of parole unless the crime was really awful. Certainly the perpetrator deserves punishment.

But weigh that against what science studies tell us: the teenage brain is not fully formed. There’s a long explanation that has to do with levels of activity in the frontal cortex and the amygdala in the temporal lobe. The quick version is that teens aren’t very good decision-makers.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concludes that based on their brain development, adolescents are more likely to act impulsively and to take more risks, and less likely to think about consequences. This is not a news flash for parents.

This isn’t about excusing teen murderers. But the science suggests sentencing them to live out their years in prison with no chance of release even as they mature, accept responsibility, show remorse — in other words, even as they grow up and their brains fully develop — is unduly harsh. Better to sentence them to life, and monitor them as years go on to see if they can be safely released.

• Abolish the death penalty. Idaho is one of 31 states that impose the death sentence. That doesn’t mean it is actually carried out.

This is not moral reasoning. Anyone who willfully takes another human life has surely ceded the moral high ground. Is the death penalty cruel and unusual? Maybe, but the victims undoubtedly thought they were being cruelly treated, too.

Rather, the death penalty doesn’t meet standards for good solutions. It’s inefficient: One Idaho inmate has been on death row since 1982. It’s ineffective: The number of murders in Idaho fluctuates year to year, but there hasn’t been any real drop-off, so there’s no deterrent effect.

Mainly, it’s problematic. According to this newspaper’s research, half of the 40 inmates sentenced to death since 1979 have had their sentences reversed. It’s common now to read of people on death row whose convictions have been overturned by DNA tests. There’s no do-over when the sentence has been carried out, and we clearly don’t get it right all the time.

Humans grow and learn. So can societies. A humane, practical, workable criminal justice system is in everyone’s interest.

Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.