BOISE — The Idaho House voted 48-21 Monday to give judges the option of giving lower sentences than the current mandatory minimums in drug trafficking cases.
The same bill, which is being sponsored this year by Reps. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, also passed the House overwhelmingly last year. However, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee opposes the bill and says he doesn't plan to hold a hearing on it.
Shortly before the House voted, the Senate Judiciary committee met and Chairman Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, introduced his own bill that would leave the mandatory minimums in place but add fentanyl to the drug trafficking statute and increase the amounts of heroin that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
Idaho law sets mandatory minimums for drug trafficking, which includes possession of large amounts of the listed drugs, based on the amount involved. Zollinger and Rubel's bill would strike the word mandatory, giving judges the option of setting a shorter sentence if they feel it is in the interests of justice and there is no threat to public safety.
"Mandatory minimums have not been effective," Zollinger said. "There's been a movement across the country to get rid of mandatory minimums."
Zollinger said the law has led to people who are drug addicts, not dealers, receiving long prison sentences.
"The war on drugs has trapped so many people in these situations where they should have never been," he said.
Rubel said most crimes in Idaho, including violent ones, don’t carry mandatory minimums, giving judges discretion. Even if the minimums are no longer mandatory, she said, judges will still give harsh sentences to major drug dealers who deserve it.
“Our system right now is destroying families,” she said. “It’s incredibly costly, it’s perpetrating great injustice, and it’s time that we stopped.”
Opponents of the bill, including prosecutors and law enforcement groups, say Idaho's tough sentencing laws help deter drug crime and scare major drug dealers from selling in Idaho.
"Our fundamental responsibility for the state of Idaho is to protect our citizens," said Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian. "I don't care what it costs to protect our citizens. I also think there's another way to get around this mandatory minimums, and that's for the drug pushers to stop selling the stinking drugs in our state, that's a good way."
Rep. Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who worked in the court system for decades, said the vast majority of people sentenced under mandatory minimums aren’t first-time or minor offenders. Out of the 13 people from Twin Falls County who are in prison under mandatory minimum sentences, she said, 12 had prior felonies, 11 were involved in selling drugs and five were on probation or parole when they got arrested.
“It’s common knowledge in the court system that nobody, absolutely nobody, goes to prison on their first crime,” she said. “They’ve all been plead down multiple times, because we really do try to give these people a chance.”
Zollinger said statistics have shown that mandatory minimums don't deter drug offenders. Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said the government’s primary job is to protect individual rights. She said when America’s Founding Fathers were setting up America’s justice system, they took care to craft a system that would protect the accused.
“They did not want an innocent man to go to prison,” she said. “They felt it was better that a guilty man go free than an innocent man go to prison. And I believe that is the same case today.”
However, Lakey told the City Club of Boise last week that he won't hold a hearing on Zollinger and Rubel's bill.
“I will not be having a hearing on that issue,” he said. “I listened to lots of people on this issue. The parents of people that are involved, the criminal defendants involved, also law enforcement that deals with this on the street on a regular basis, and I guess they’re the ones that are most telling for me.”
Instead, Lakey introduced his own bill Monday that would increase the amount of heroin that triggers the mandatory minimums from 2 to 5 grams on the lowest tier and 5 to 10 grams on the second tier. It would also reduce the mandatory minimum sentence on the second tier from 10 to 5 years. And, it would add fentanyl, a powerful narcotic that is growing more popular as a cut for heroin, to the trafficking statute.
"We have officers that can touch a granule and be absorbed in their skin and face a life-threatening situation," Lakey said.
Lakey said his bill is a compromise, since many of the cases of drug addicts being imprisoned involve heroin. He said after the bill was introduced he opposes getting rid of mandatory minimums. They help keep drug traffickers out of Idaho, he said. He said heroin is significantly more expensive in Idaho than in Utah, which lessened penalties for drug offenses several years ago.
"As I've listened to lots of perspectives on this I don't think repeal of the mandatory minimums is worth the risk," he said.
Lakey said he doesn't know yet if he will schedule a full hearing on his bill.
"As we've been talking about this issue we've had a different perspective," he said. "I will have to have some more discussion to see if this is a viable compromise."
Zollinger said after the House vote he thinks Lakey's proposal is also a good idea, but that mandatory minimums still need to go.
"We're going to put pressure on the Senate in any way we possibly can to hear this important piece of legislation," he said.
Zollinger raised the possibility of holding Senate bills hostage or using other parliamentary tactics to force Lakey's hand if necessary.
"We have several ideas to encourage the Senate to hear the bill," he said.