One after another, legislators listened for more than four hours as defense attorneys, prosecutors and the family members of drug addicts discussed whether drug trafficking should hold a mandatory minimum sentence.
The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee met Wednesday for an informative hearing regarding a bill that would eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences on drug trafficking.
The change would allow judges to use discretion when sentencing on a case-by-case basis.
Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, and Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, co-sponsored the bill, which defense attorneys supported but law enforcement and prosecutors adamantly opposed.
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Rubel noted in the hearing that the current charge of “drug trafficking” does not mean prosecutors have proof of dealing or bringing drugs across state lines. The law focuses on the amount of drugs in an individual’s possession.
The Wednesday hearing came 25 years after the mandatory minimums were put in place in 1992 — during the height of the country’s so-called war on drugs.
Much of the discussion Wednesday focused on the mandatory minimum sentences that come with heroin trafficking.
In Idaho, any person in possession of 2 grams or more of heroin faces a mandatory minimum of three years in prison for heroin trafficking.
Any person with 7 to 28 grams of heroin faces a minimum of 10 years in prison. Any person with 28 grams or more faces a minimum of 15 years in prison.
There are similar mandatory minimums for people in possession of cocaine, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.
Defense attorney Jeff Brownson testified, telling the story of a client he had who was charged with heroin trafficking.
Brownson said his client became addicted to opiates after an injury and eventually turned to heroin. When his client was arrested, he was in possession of 7.5 grams of heroin, a weight that comes with a minimum of 10 years in prison.
On average, Brownson said, his client was using about 2 grams of heroin per day at the time of the arrest. He said that meant his client would serve 10 years in prison for having a three-day supply of the drug.
Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail, a judge of 34 years, spoke before legislators saying she was in favor of removing mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking.
She said at the hearing that although she believes serious offenses warrant serious penalties, she was in favor of treating every case differently based upon the circumstances.
“The problem with the mandatory minimum sentences in this one area of drug trafficking is … it’s only focused on the amount,” Bail said. “It’s not focused on the role of the person, it’s not focused on who they are and what you might do to impose a penalty to get things going better.”
Rep. Perry told lawmakers that the number of drug arrests in Idaho has not dropped, as it was expected to after the mandatory minimums were implemented in 1992. Instead, the number has consistently increased.
Some defense attorneys testified that providing a mandatory minimum was not a deterrent for drug dealers because they are unaware of the law.
Boise police detectives, however, told legislators that large-scale drug dealers do know the laws within each state and have learned to manipulate the system.
Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Gerald Wolff told lawmakers that when the minimums were implemented in 1992 he worked to advance the bill.
At the time, Wolff said, one of the issues in Idaho was not just deterrence, but providing consistency in sentencing. He noted that depending on which jurisdiction a person was arrested in, a sentence could vary widely depending on the judge.
Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, questioned Wolff, saying that while prosecutors have discretion in charging an offender, a judge’s discretion is taken when sentencing an offender.
While defense attorneys argued that some of the people facing mandatory minimums were only possessing enough drugs for personal use, Wolff noted that buying that amount of a drug could cost several thousand dollars. In exchange, that user may sell some of the drug to finance the purchase up front.
“People who are willing to go out and feed their addiction by selling that product that they are addicted to … that’s not a user, that’s a dealer,” Wolff told lawmakers.
No decision will be made this year on removing mandatory minimum sentences, but Perry said she anticipated the issue would be brought up again in the next legislative session.