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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho bill to create mandatory minimums for fentanyl will be sent to Gov. Brad Little

Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaks Sept. 29 at the antibody treatment site at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene. Little is asking for $250,000 to launch project “Operation Esto Perpetua,” an initiative aiming to fight fentanyl and other drugs in the state.  (COLIN TIERNAN/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Idaho residents convicted of fentanyl crimes will likely soon face more severe prison sentences.

House Bill 406, which would create mandatory minimum prison sentences for fentanyl crimes, passed the final hurdle in the Legislature after the Senate approved the bill Thursday in a 28-7 vote. It heads to Gov. Brad Little for signing.

The bill would mandate minimums of three-year prison sentences for people who were caught possessing 4 grams – or 100 pills – of fentanyl, with larger sentences for higher amounts. Though lawmakers said the harsher sentences intended to crack down on drug trafficking, charges under the law are based solely on the amount of the drug and wouldn’t hinge on a person’s intent to deal or manufacture fentanyl.

Proponents argue that fentanyl is many times more deadly than other drugs and that even tiny amounts can lead to death. The new law would also create a drug-induced homicide charge for those who dealt fentanyl that caused a death.

Republican proponents of the bill said they want to send a strong message to drug traffickers to deter their business in the state following a rise in fentanyl-related deaths, and the proposal has support from Idaho’s law enforcement agencies.

“Part of the reason Idaho is so great is because we’ve made strong, clear policy decisions that we don’t support drug dealers and distributors, and we don’t make it easier for them to do business,” said Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, one of the bill’s 51 sponsors.

Fentanyl bill limits judge’s discretion

Despite nearly every Republican voting in favor of the bill, many lawmakers expressed concern that the bill does not tackle the problems of drug addiction and that it might instead incarcerate people suffering with substance abuse. Others said they worried that additional drug-induced homicide crime could send teenagers to prison or discourage people from calling for help when a friend overdoses.

Advocates for prison reform have questioned mandatory minimum sentences and disputed their effectiveness. Studies show they largely do not deter crime. Idaho’s mandatory minimum laws date from the 1990s, and some lawmakers in recent years have tried to undo them without success.

“I think what this bill does is it scoops up people who are not trafficking and calls them traffickers,” said Sen. Phil Hart, R-Kellogg, on the Senate floor. He was the only Republican to vote against the bill. “I think maybe some of those need to go to prison, but I think the judge ought to have discretion for those who maybe would more benefit from a rehabilitation program.”

Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, said she worried the bill could cause people to “rethink” getting help for someone who has overdosed.

The Democratic caucus opposed the bill, and Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she visited a prison and learned that many women there on drug crimes had suffered from sexual or domestic violence, which had led them to medicate with substances.

“Let the judicial branch weigh in and look at all the facts of the case and make a decision about how long somebody is going to be in prison,” she said.