The bill for Idaho’s failure to seriously address our prison problem is about to come due, and it’s a big one: $500 million. That’s the cost of a proposed state prison expansion. What’s worse is that Idaho will have to issue bonds for the project, which means we’re on the hook for principal and interest.
The causes of Idaho’s prison problem are well beyond the scope of this column. However, one of the big factors is the failed war on drugs. Our prisons are bloated with nonviolent drug offenders caught up in mandatory minimum sentences, which have proved to be costly, ineffective and a danger to our communities.
However, there is hope. Congress recently passed criminal justice reform with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation is designed to cut unnecessary prison times while reducing recidivism. If the U.S. Congress can do it, surely the Idaho Legislature can — at least where mandatory minimums are concerned.
Mandatory minimum drug sentences are absolute in Idaho. Our state’s drug “trafficking” laws do not require suspects to actually sell anything. Mere possession of specified drug amounts gets you big prison sentences — between one and 30 years behind bars. Judges, elected to mete out justice fairly and appropriately, have no ability to look at the circumstances or individuals involved. Judges have sentencing discretion for very serious crimes such as rape, arson, human trafficking, second-degree murder, even cannibalism.
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But not drugs.
We agree that drugs are dangerous, but is possession really more serious than murder? The drug offenders currently locked up under mandatory minimums are hardly the most hardened criminals in society — 83 percent have no violent history, and 91 percent are first-time “traffickers.”
When the Legislature passed Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws back in 1992, the goal was deterrence. The idea was that if potential offenders knew drug sentences would be harsh and unavoidable, they would refrain from using and trafficking drugs. In the 26 years since, Idaho’s drug offense rate per capita has climbed 640 percent. Obviously, the law didn’t deter anything.
Numerous states have reduced or eliminated mandatory minimum drug sentences and have not seen crime spike. In fact, most are seeing a decrease in crime. Long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders can actually increase crime rates by taking people who could otherwise be rehabilitated and breaking their community ties, leaving them less able to obtain lawful employment upon release.
Bipartisan legislation reforming our mandatory minimum laws easily passed the Idaho House last session before dying in a Senate committee. Legislators heard hours of testimony describing young people whose futures were destroyed by a mistake for which Idaho’s laws allow no forgiveness, rehabilitation or redemption. While the current law targeted operators of massive drug operations, it was clear that very few “kingpins” were actually jailed in Idaho. Ordinary citizens were more often caught in this net.
We are bringing that bipartisan legislation back this year.
While Idaho had good intentions 26 years ago, it’s time we made a decision based on what we know today. Idaho’s mandatory minimums for drug crimes generate real injustice and expense, with little, if any, deterrence. Let’s give judges the flexibility to do what’s right — let’s let judges judge.
Rep. Ilana Rubel is the House Asst. Minority Leader and represents District 18. Rep. Bryan Zollinger represents District 33.