With nearly 7,500 people behind bars in Idaho -- more than half of them for drug offenses -- the Idaho legislature is finally beginning to move away from the "tough on crime" posturing and infliction of mandatory minimum drug dealing sentences that helped create the current crisis. A bill with bipartisan support that would give Idaho judges the option to send people convicted of drug distribution offenses to treatment instead of mandatory prison terms if they are found to be addicts is on the move in Boise.
House Bill 516, sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat, is in line for a full hearing at the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee this session. The bill would mark a departure for Idaho, which for years has responded to illegal drug use and sales by ratcheting up penalties.
But even the bill's sponsors are still playing to the punishment choir, if the Associated Press got it right. Rep. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise), a cosponsor of the bill, told the committee Monday most people convicted of drug distribution offenses deserved harsh sentences. But, she said, those involved in small-time dealing because of their addictions should get a chance at treatment instead. "For these rare instances, this will allow for an alternative sentence by judges," she said. "If treatment is provided, that provides the best chance of recovering."
Under current Idaho law, most drug dealing convictions require mandatory minimum sentences of three to five years. Some methamphetamine and meth precursor offenses carry 10-year mandatory minimums, though.
The bill "ain't a bad idea," Rep. Dick Harwood (R-St. Maries) told the AP. "Our prisons are pumped full. It would be nice to give judges discretion about whether to send somebody to prison or to some other treatment program. In reality, they're the ones that are sitting on the front lines, not the legislators who are making the laws."
There is also a another bill aimed at sentencing reform in Idaho. Rep. Jim Clark (R-Hayden) has introduced a bill that would expand misdemeanor drug courts. It is aimed at stopping minor offenders from developing full-blown substance abuse problems. If these bills are truly harbingers of a new approach in the Gem State, it's about time.