Federal rules won't change Idaho drug prosecutions

Criminal history, use of violence and suspects' roles in organizations are already factors here.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 18, 2013 

Attorney General Eric Holder's recent move to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug dealers is already the standard approach in Idaho, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said.

"The new policy won't change how we view people who didn't use violence and who weren't an organizer, leader or supervisor," she said.

Last month, Ammon resident Jesus M. Avila, 46, was sentenced to a year in federal prison and a year of home detention after selling 5 grams of meth to a confidential informant in August 2011.

Avila had faced a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence after being charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. The government agreed to drop that charge in exchange for Avila pleading guilty to a lesser charge and for his cooperation in providing information about his drug sources.

Contrast that with Christopher "Paco" Palacios, 41, of Filer, who on Aug. 28 was sentenced to 18 years in prison for conspiracy with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of meth. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge added an extra eight years.

Olson said her office will continue to seek stiff sentences for ringleaders of large-scale drug distribution groups.

Last month, Holder announced that nonviolent, low-level drug offenders without ties to gangs or large-scale drug distribution groups would no longer face charges that impose long mandatory sentences. He sent out a memo to Olson and the nation's 92 other U.S. attorneys with instructions on how to proceed.

"We're looking at their criminal histories. We're looking at whether they used violence in the commission of their crimes," Olson said.

Of the 75 federal drug case defendants sentenced this year in Idaho, all were involved in dealing meth, which Olson said is the state's No. 1 drug problem.

Federal defense attorneys said they are pleased with the change, even if it impacts other states more than in Idaho.

"I think that's a move in the right direction," said Dick Rubin, a Boise attorney who serves as executive director for Federal Defender Services of Idaho. "I think it's about time."

Nearly 47 percent of the nation's 219,000 federal prisoners are doing time for drug crimes, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The next highest category, which includes weapons offenses, explosives and arson, accounts for 16 percent of the prison population.

Holder said he wants to limit prison terms for some drug offenders and expand a program that allows for the release of some elderly prisoners who are not violent.

Federal prisons are operating at 40 percent above capacity and it costs about $35,000 a year to house a prisoner, Rubin said. That's a major expense and is compounded by the rise in demand for social services, including health care and food stamps for family members of those in prison, he said.

"That's something that people haven't thought about," Rubin said. "It's really astronomical when you keep someone in prison for 15, 20 or 25 years," he said.

STATE SENTENCING

Under Idaho law, mandatory minimum provisions are triggered only if a judge or jury finds at least one of three aggravating circumstances exist. Those apply to repeat offenders and drug dealers who sell to children or within 1,000 feet of a school, and require a minimum sentence of five years.

"There are no mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses in Idaho," said Roger Bourne, chief deputy prosecuting attorney for Ada County.

In fact, Idaho has chosen to give judges great leeway in making such sentencing decisions. Two defendants who commit the same crime may end up with widely differing sentences based upon their criminal history, how well they take responsibility for their offenses and their likelihood for rehabilitation.

A fifth of Idaho's 8,177 prison inmates were convicted of drug offenses, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.

A working group convened this year by the Idaho Legislature is exploring ways to balance incarceration with programs meant to keep inmates from reoffending. Idaho has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation but a high incarceration rate, Marc Pelka, a consultant with the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center, told the working group on Aug. 29.

Last year, Idaho had nearly 14,000 people on felony probation or parole supervision. From 2008 to 2012, 57 percent of parolees and 43 percent of those on probation were returned to prison. Parole violators on average served from three to 20 months in prison after being revoked. Probationers served an additional 1.8 years, adding greatly to state prison costs.

The working group is looking at suggestions to prioritize programs to address recidivism, and focus supervision on the highest-risk offenders.

"We think we do a good job in Idaho but we want to do a better job," said Republican Sen. Patti Ann Lodge of Sunnyslope.

More intense supervision for high-risk offenders can help them stay in line and work on behaviors that in the past landed them back in prison, Pelka said.

Several other states have had better success by responding quickly to probation and parole violations. In Idaho, like many other states, it can take weeks for a person charged with a violation to appear before a judge. Handing out sanctions immediately after a violation reinforces the idea that the offender is held accountable for his or her actions, but also allows them to serve the penalty and then move on.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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