The Idaho House passed a bill to allow judges more discretion in drug trafficking sentences on a 46-20 vote Monday.
It is the second year of efforts by Republican Rep. Christy Perry and Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel to modify mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug trafficking.
Their bill, HB 581, would remove the term ‘mandatory’ before Idaho’s drug trafficking statutes, still keeping in place the minimums and recommended sentencing length and fines. The bill would allow judges to hand down a smaller sentence if they feel the use of the minimum is a “manifest injustice” and if it is unnecessary for “the protection of the public.”
“We are only inserting the safety valve in that rare instance,” said Rep. Perry, of Nampa.
Trafficking is the only drug statute that carries a mandatory minimum in Idaho. Manufacturing, possession of smaller amounts and selling drugs all carry a range of recommended sentences at the state level, which are up to judicial discretion.
Idaho’s drug trafficking statutes have sentencing requirements tied to the weight of drugs a person possesses, with differing sentences based on the substance.
Floor debate saw similar quarrel the bill faced last week in House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, argued that the bill would result in a full elimination of the mandatory minimums and would remove deterrence for organized crime.
“This is about creating a disincentive for organized crime. If we remove this barrier, you will see an increased investment in the amount of products coming to our state and the crimes associated with it,” he said.
Nampa Rep. Greg Chaney, a Republican on the committee, responded to Malek’s concerns.
“This is not raising the white flag on the war on drugs or the war on organized crime, as was stated. This is simply choosing a smart bomb over a carpet bomb,” Chaney said.
Another committee member, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said the bill wouldn’t increase trafficking. He argued the bill would give sentencing discretion to handling drug users with high volumes.
“This makes good sense fiscally and this makes good sense that we do not put people in prison for 10 years that have used the economy of scale to buy a little bit more,” he said.
The Pew Research Center estimates 40 states have reduced or modified their mandatory minimum drug sentences between 2009 and 2013.
HB 581 now heads to the Senate, where it must clear committee and the floor before being considered by the governor.
– Kyle Pfannenstiel covers the 2018 Idaho Legislature for the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research.