Bill Would Give Judges Discretion in Deciding Criminal Sentences

It seems like almost every Utah legislative session, there are one or two bills that set a fixed penalty – sentence – for a criminal, but now a lawmaker wants to give state judges greater leeway in imposing prison time and fines.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, a retired district judge, says there will always be leeway in law enforcement.

“Maybe it is the cop on the beat, deciding to arrest. Certainly the prosecutor has discretion in charging.

“But it is best to have real discretion at the judges level – where it is most accountable,” says McIff, who is chair of the House’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee.

In Utah, says McIff, judicial appointees go through one of the most rigorous nominating processes. And sitting judges go through voter-approved retention elections to keep their seats.

So poorly-trained lawyers don’t get on the bench in the first place, and poor jurists don’t stay on the bench if they’ve offended voters.

McIff’s idea is that no current sentencing laws or guidelines would be changed.

Rather, a judge, in imposing a sentence, could reduce the legal requirements by up to 50 percent or increase the requirements by more than 50 percent.

So a mandatory five-year criminal sentence could be 2.5 years or could be 7.5 years by the judge’s decision.

McIff’s bill comes at an interesting time for the Utah correctional system.

As part of the controversial state prison relocation process – legislators have already decided to move the prison, now the question is to where – there’s talk of reducing sentences for non-violent offenders, especially drug offenses.

Moving the prison is going to cost upwards of $500 million – the largest non-transportation capital project in state history.

It is planned for around 4,500 beds, or prison cells.

The fewer number of inmates, the less cost to taxpayers as the new prison goes forward.

Now, no one wants cost, or budget, to drive criminal/correction policy in Utah. That’s a given.

But in fact, it has over the years – at various times, not recently — prison officials facing overcrowding at the prison have had to start early release programs.

And even though a criminal may have been sentenced to 10 years, he could get out early under those overcrowding demands.

If Utah has some of the best judges in the nation – and McIff believes we do – and if those judges are ultimately accountable to voters – as they are – then it makes sense, and it should be policy, that those judges have discretion in sentencing criminals.

However, to actually do that will require a shift in legislative history – where lawmakers for years have been imposing mandatory sentences – extending prison time — and kept close control of judges’ actions.