Fourth District Judge Steven Hippler said he had sleepless nights over sending Chandler Clark-Storkson to prison.
At the time, the 21-year-old defendant was a heroin addict fighting for his life, said his mother, LeeAnn Clark. The steps Clark-Storkson took to feed that addiction caught up with him in 2016, ending in handcuffs and a charge of drug trafficking.
The judge, based in Ada County, sentenced Clark-Storkson in April 2017 to serve four to 10 years in prison. Hippler couldn’t have gone lower than three years – despite Clark-Storkson’s lack of criminal history, including no record of violent crime, because state law required that he serve a minimum of three years in prison before being eligible for parole.
Idaho’s drug trafficking statute is an unusual example in this state of a law with mandatory minimum sentences, requiring a judge to force a defendant to serve prison time, even if that judge would rather pursue a shorter prison term, county jail or probation.
“This is a very rare outlier that came during the war on drugs,” Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said during hearings this week on a bill to relax the law. “It was passed in 1992, but this is not typically how we would treat crimes in Idaho.”
Rubel and Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, propose removing the word “mandatory” from the drug trafficking law’s sentencing language. They would give judges more discretion for cases in which an extended prison term would be a “manifest injustice” or “not necessary for the protection of the public.”
Their bill received more than six hours of debate Monday and Wednesday in the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. Members eventually voted 11-6 to move it forward to the House.
The issue with drug trafficking in particular, critics say, is that the law’s punishments are based on drug weight alone. There’s no requirement to prove a suspect was selling or dealing a substance, only that they possessed it.
“They take the individual out of the analysis and focus on the amount of product. And I think at times that can be an unfair and unjust way to look at that,” Hippler said before sentencing Clark-Storkson, according to a recording of the hearing.
Of 410 inmates serving time in Idaho for drug trafficking, only 18 percent have a violent crime on record, according to the Idaho Department of Correction. A full 38 percent have no prior criminal record in this state.
On the day of his arrest, Clark-Storkson was taking down about 2 grams of heroin a day, his mother said. He had 19 grams of heroin on him that day. For the now-22-year-old, that was about a 10-day supply.
At that weight, Clark-Storkson initially faced a minimum of 10 years in prison for having more than 7 grams. Prosecutors negotiated the case down via a plea agreement, recommending a minimum of four years.
Hippler adopted that recommendation, he said, because he didn’t want to deter prosecutors from offering similar pleas in the future to similar defendants. And the judge said he understood the concern that led lawmakers to create the mandatory minimums more than two decades ago.
“I suspect that had Mr. Clark-Storkson not been caught, we wouldn’t be talking about prison at some point, we’d be talking about whether this group of fine people (in court) would be burying him,” Hippler said. “Because heroin kills.”
Clark-Storkson’s case is far from the first criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing. Another Ada County judge in late 2016 called a trafficking defendant’s situation “sad,” and said she would likely need support and services from the state after serving her minimum 10 years in prison.
And Idaho’s examples are part of an ongoing national debate. U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, a current candidate for governor, has unsuccessfully pursued mandatory minimum reform in Congress. The protest that transformed into the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016 was spurred partly by mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in a federal anti-terrorism law, applied to two ranchers who illegally set fires near their ranch.
Perry, who is among the candidates seeking Labrador’s soon-empty seat, said in committee Monday that the Idaho law’s drug weight thresholds are too low. Some of those currently convicted are addicts, not high-level dealers, she said.
Ian Thomson, speaking for the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, echoed her argument.
“I’m saying that what this does, by attaching mandatory minimums only to the (drug) weight, is that you’re going to ensnare and capture individuals who are not dealers or what you and I would commonly call traffickers,” Thomson said.
Rubel said the law has not had the desired effect of decreasing drug use, as lawmakers in the 1990s had hoped. And, she said, sending young people to prison makes it harder to rehabilitate addicts and stop criminal behavior.
“Mandatory minimums are a transfer of power from the judiciary to the prosecutors,” Perry said. “Once the prosecutors choose to charge under this charge … they automatically choose the sentence that goes with them. It takes the sentencing and the discretion away from the judge.”
But prosecutors have defended the law and its approach. Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark (no relation to LeeAnn Clark) called the bill a “repeal of the trafficking statute.” He told lawmakers that he uses the mandatory minimum sentences to help take down organized crime in his county. And, he said, it’s “naive” to believe drug traffickers don’t know how Idaho’s punishments compare to other states.
“This will be a windfall in favor of drug dealers and it will make our communities less safe,” he said about the bill. “For me, this is not a discretionary issue. This is an issue of deterrence. We will lose years of deterrent results with the passage of this bill.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene and another candidate for Labrador’s seat, is a former county prosecutor. He also spoke in favor of the minimums, saying drug trafficking is a source of income for Idaho gangs and the existing law makes it less profitable for those to operate in Idaho.
Boise Police Officer Terry Weir urged the committee to keep the current law. He said Idaho police departments don’t warehouse large portions of heroin because large-scale traffickers avoid the state.
“Drug trafficking creates more addicts and more crime and in turn you have more deaths,” said Weir, speaking on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Prior to voting against the bill, Malek expressed frustration with the committee, saying it had an “anti-law enforcement sentiment.” An upset Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, tweeted shortly after the vote that Malek owed the committee an apology.
Adding to overcrowding?
Over time, the mandatory minimums issue has become mixed with another challenge – Idaho’s overstuffed prisons.
Clark-Storkson spent most of the first year of his sentence in a state prison near Kuna. But he’s currently in Texas, one of 150 inmates the Idaho Department of Correction sent out of state this February due to a shortage of prison beds here.
Eventually, said Rubel, removing mandatory minimums may save the state money by forcing fewer people into prison. A fiscal note accompanying her legislation notes “such potential savings cannot be quantified at this time.”
Housing inmates in Texas costs IDOC slightly more per day – 36 cents per inmate, $54 per day for the full 150. But its biggest downfall is pulling inmates away from their families and other visitors, cutting off a social connection at a time when rehabilitation efforts are vital.
In Clark-Storkson’s case, his family used to visit him at the Kuna prison at least once or twice a week, LeeAnn Clark said. Phone calls are also more expensive to the Texas prison. She said she worries her son will only get worse and face a relapse into his addiction without the support he used to have.
“My son’s crime was a crime mostly against himself,” said Clark, who took part in a recent protest against sending inmates out of state. She talked about new changes in her son’s behavior. “They’ve taken him and basically criminalized him. It’s hardened him.”
The bottom line on other drugs
Other examples of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking:
▪ Possession of 28 to 200 grams of cocaine requires at least three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
▪ Possession of 28 to 200 grams of methamphetamine requires at least three years in prison and up to life and $10,000 fine.
▪ Possession of 1 to 5 pounds of marijuana, or 25 to 50 marijuana plants, calls for at least one year in prison and a $5,000.