COEUR d’ALENE — A North Idaho legislator who is a former prosecuting attorney has teamed with law enforcement to oppose a recently passed House bill seeking to quash mandatory minimum drug sentences in Idaho.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the move to adopt House Bill 581 is short-sighted and is being considered without any input from the state’s police.
He said that if it becomes law, the bill would open the door to more drug dealing and organized crime in North Idaho because the mandatory minimums now keep many of those predators away.
After eight hours of debate Monday, the Idaho House voted 46-20 to rid Idaho of its mandatory minimum drug sentences if a judge finds the sentence would cause a “manifest injustice,” and the mandatory minimum sentence is not necessary to protect the public.
Under current law, people arrested with a pound of marijuana, two grams of heroin, 28 grams of cocaine or methamphetamine and who manufacture meth, are subject to mandatory minimum prison time.
Legislators Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa and Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, argue that the mandatory minimums take away the discretion of judges who may, after reading a defendant’s criminal history, find that the mandatory sentences are not warranted.
Perry and Rubel say mandatory minimum drug sentences often miss the mark because they are based solely on the amount of drugs in a person’s possession. The law disregards a defendant’s criminal history, or lack thereof.
The current law targets drug weight as opposed to intent.
“It really only deals with possession, and only by the weight of the drugs.” Perry said. “It doesn’t necessarily deal with trafficking as it says.”
When Idaho adopted mandatory minimum sentences in 1992, legislators were caught in the wake of the national war on drugs, Perry said.
“We have since learned that addiction is a disease and we know more about it now than we ever did in 1992,” Perry said.
But legislators who adopted mandatory minimums added a clause giving judges the final word, she said. When the law was challenged and changed, the safety valve was removed.
“It removed judicial discretion entirely,” Perry said. “So it became mandatory no matter what … and now judges have zero discretion even after hearing all evidence.”
Nationally, mandatory sentencing laws have filled prisons, she said.
“There have been massive increases in our prison populations,” she said.
Malek disputes the claim that the current law is responsible for an influx of felons in Idaho prisons. Over the past 13 years, 107 people, or about eight annually, have been sentenced in Idaho because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, he said.
“There are no examples of someone who has been wrongly incarcerated,” he said.
Having mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking sends a message, Malek said.
“Drug trafficking is the No. 1 financing tool of organized crime,” Malek said. “We have relatively low crime because we have relatively low organized crime in Idaho.”
Studies that use prison telephone calls and confidential informants have shown that Idaho’s strict sentencing guidelines for trafficking act as a deterrent for organized crime.
“When we want to increase corporate investment … we remove barriers, reduce taxes, remove regulation,” Malek said. “You can be guaranteed when organized crime sees we have chosen to eliminate a disincentive for them to do business in the state of Idaho, we will see an increase in (organized crime).”
Calling mandatory minimum sentencing “a bizarre outlier in our jurisprudence … it’s not how we do business in our Idaho courts,” Rubel said the notion that lifting the mandatory minimums would cause an increased wave of trafficking.
It sends a message that judges aren’t capable of making the right sentencing decisions for drug trafficking offenses, she said.
“We’re really putting this on par with first-degree murder,” she said. “You really have to believe judges can’t be trusted at all.”
Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White said law enforcement in Idaho is strongly united in opposition to the bill, and that his organization has collected data supporting Malek’s concern.
“Drug dealers in Washington don’t want to come to Idaho to deal any weight,” White said. “They are reluctant to come here moving large amount of (drugs).”
Before it becomes law, the bill must pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Butch Otter.