Periodically, a bad idea is foist upon the electorate. In Oregon, it appears we’re going to be faced with one such when we mark our November ballots.

The misguided and unnecessary initiative is No.13. It’s being called “The Oregon Crime Fighting Act.” A lot of hyperbole for something that would make bad law.

If passed, it would remove judicial discretion when certain felony sex crime and Class C DUI cases are ready for sentencing. The law would mandate those sentences, tying judges hands. They’d have no options regardless of circumstance. That’s wrong.

These kinds of “mandatory sentencing” ideas can usually be traced to someone … or several someone’s … unhappy with the outcome of a case involving them. Dig deeper and you often find one or more individual sponsors previously involved in a personal losing court decision wherein they think the wrongdoer got off too lightly because of some “liberal judge.” Sometimes true; sometimes not.

We elect judges. We make them stand for election and go from chicken dinner to chicken dinner like other “politicians.” I’ve never liked the idea but that’s how we do it. So saying, I admit not all judges we elect do the job. If that’s the case, we can fire ‘em and run in a new one even though that process is flawed.

Judges have education and adequate legal training to do their work. Years of it. But when you create mandatory sentencing, you take away that education and all that experience to decide a fair punishment. Then the whole process could be done by a German Shepard. That’s not the system I want.

Consider a hypothetical. Your teen wants to go to Diamond Lake with friends. You approve. But your instruction is the kid must be home by 9 p.m. Failure will mean a month’s grounding.

Remembering your words, the kids leave the lake in plenty of time to get home on schedule. But, on the road, a major wreck blocks the highway in both directions for hours. Because of the isolated terrain, no cell phone service.

The deadline comes. And goes. And goes some more. You’re wearing a path in the carpet from pacing and the dog is hiding under the bed because of your loud and repeated threats. Finally, just after midnight, your transient teen is home. Your first words: “You’re grounded for life!” Discipline promised. Promise kept. Period.

Or is it? Do you have the full story of the tardy teen? Were there mitigating facts? Do you know why you didn’t get a phone call? When you pronounced “sentence,” did you know your kid tried to honor your “law” but got caught in circumstances that kept him/her from complying? Of course not. So you review all the facts, give your kid a big hug, offer to make a quick snack and everybody goes to bed.

If you had been forced to stick to your promise (the law) when you were really mad, justice (proper sentencing) wouldn’t have happened. Required punishment would have overruled common sense and you’d have injustice.

Tardiness and repeated major crimes aren’t exactly the same. But you get the point. If No. 13 becomes law, mitigating factors be damned. Oregon’s judiciary would have no choice. Extenuating circumstances … if any … would have to be ignored. The law’s the law.

When I want a job done that requires a professional, I look for a good one, agree on terms and get out of the way. Painter, plumber, carpenter, mechanic. Get the best you can find and let ‘em work. Don’t tell ‘em how to do the job. Don’t kibbitz. If I had known how to do those things I wouldn’t have needed ‘em.

Same for the judiciary. Many times, making law by referendum results in bad law. Especially when dealing with the courts. Or taxes. While the original idea may have sounded good, required implementation can sometimes result in unintended consequences. Once you’ve fired up the crowd to vote your way on what seemed like a good idea, it’s nearly impossible to bring it back for adjustment.

Our lawmaking system is slow, torturous and exasperating. No question. But those same characteristics are often why bad ideas don’t become law. Mandatory sentencing for despicable crimes may seem worthy but it removes the judicial human from the human equation.

That’s never a good idea.

One Response to “For the best quality justice, allow judges to judge”

  1. Neveah Says:

    That’s really shrewd! Good to see the logic set out so well.