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Idaho House backs move to ease some mandatory minimum drug sentences

UPDATED: Mon., March 12, 2018, 6:17 p.m.

The Idaho House debates legislation to ease some mandatory minimum drug sentences, on Monday, March 12, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
The Idaho House debates legislation to ease some mandatory minimum drug sentences, on Monday, March 12, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

After a stormy debate, the Idaho House voted 46-20 on Monday to ease some of the state’s mandatory minimum drug sentences in cases where a judge finds imposing them would be a “manifest injustice” and there’s no danger to society.

“We are not condoning drugs – we have to make that very, very clear here,” Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, told the House. But she said Idaho’s current mandatory minimum sentence laws define an offense as “drug trafficking” based solely on possession of certain quantities of specific drugs – and require lengthy prison terms even for first offenders and those who only had the drugs for personal use.

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, who is cosponsoring the bipartisan bill with Perry, said, “Under our current law, all that matters is how many grams you have on your person. … It doesn’t matter if you’ve never committed another crime in you life. You are going away to prison for five years or 10 years or 15 years.”

Rubel told the House, “I hope you will be brave and do what’s right here.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, led the opposition to the bill, saying, “This is not a smart bill, this is not the right thing to do, and this is not brave.” He said, “Drug trafficking is the No. 1 tool of organized crime. We have relatively low crime because we have relatively low organized crime in Idaho.”

Malek said, “You can guarantee that when organized crime sees that we have chosen to eliminate a disincentive for them to do business in Idaho, you will see an increase in all of this in the state of Idaho.”

He asked, “Why do we want to give organized crime a foothold in the state of Idaho?”

Other lawmakers disagreed.

“This is not raising a white flag in the war on drugs or the war on organized crime,” said Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell. “This is simply choosing a smart bomb over a carpet bomb.”

The bill still needs Senate passage and the governor’s signature to become law. Idaho’s minimum sentences for possession of certain amounts of drugs, from marijuana to heroin, have been on the books since 1992.