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BOISE — In 2018, the Idaho Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee met six times, and submitted five formal recommendations to the Legislature, including making changes to Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In 2019, under new co-chair Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, the committee never met at all. And it made no recommendations.

Lakey noted that he’s “fairly new” as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, a post he moved into a year ago, as is his House counterpart, Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, who just became chairman this year. “We didn’t see any need for statutory changes in regards to the Justice Reinvestment Act this year,” Lakey said.

Idaho, in cooperation with the Council of State Governments, first passed its justice reinvestment legislation in 2014. All three branches of state government — the Legislature, the executive branch and the courts — collaborated on the plan, which is aimed at halting what CSG identified as a “revolving door of recidivism” in Idaho’s criminal justice system.

The initiative is aimed at reserving prison cell space for the most dangerous criminals, while investing the savings from less incarceration into programs designed to reduce repeat offenses among lesser offenders. In 2017, however, the Legislature repealed several key features of the initiative, including a system of intermediate sanctions for parole violators. Law enforcement demanded the change after a parolee who’d received one of the sanctions and then been released shot and seriously injured a police officer.

When Idaho Pardons & Parole Commission Director Ashley Dowell was asked by lawmakers during her budget hearing last week whether Idaho was releasing people on parole earlier because of justice reinvestment, she said no.

“I think it’s a common misperception of the justice reinvestment that people were being released who wouldn’t otherwise be released,” she said. “When we look at our grant rate” — how many offenders are granted parole when they come before the commission — “our grant rate has remained relatively stable over the last several years, within a couple of percentage points.”

Parole revocations have increased, she said.

Last year, after extensive hearings, the Idaho House passed hard-fought legislation to allow judges to vary from mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking pegged solely to possession of specific amounts of drugs, in cases where the judge finds they would be unjust. The bill never got out of committee in the Senate.

Lakey said, “I still am very firm in my conviction that I don’t support repeal of mandatory minimums, and that’s what the legislation was last year.”

He said he would be open, however, to possibly updating the amounts listed in the law for certain drugs. Last year’s hearings drew testimony that Idaho’s heroin trafficking law is inadvertently charging users as dealers, because the amount triggering the mandatory minimum is so low.

“Because we have mandatory minimums for drug traffickers, we have fewer drugs being sold in Idaho,” Lakey said. “I’d support adjustments to the statute vs. a repeal.”

In 2018, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee was chaired by Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, now chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee; and Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who was defeated for reelection that year. One of the panel’s formal recommendations that year was to extend the oversight committee for four more years.

HOW RARE IT WAS…

Thursday’s unanimous vote by the Idaho House to expel Rep. John Green, R-Rathdrum, after his felony conviction appears to be a historic first. The Legislative Reference Library could find no evidence of any member of either the House or Senate being removed from office in recent history.

The library, which archives documents of the Idaho Legislature, did locate a news clipping from March 24, 1967, in the Idaho Statesman, in which then-Rep. Aden Hyde joked that if the legislative session went much longer, he’d volunteer to be “the first member ever expelled.” Hyde later was recalled by voters.

Though the evidence isn’t conclusive — that would take someone going through every legislative daily journal back to statehood — it is clear that no one’s been expelled from either house in at least the last 40 years, as verified by longtime employees of the Legislature. In recent years, when such a move appeared possible, the lawmaker in question voluntarily resigned.

Expulsion of a sitting state legislator takes a two-thirds vote of the house where they serve; the rare move removes an elected legislator from office. Such vacancies are filled like any other legislative vacancy: The district central committee of the party to which the incumbent belonged sends the names of three qualified nominees to the governor, who appoints the new lawmaker to serve out the remainder of the term.

Digging way back into the archives, there were two expulsion votes in the House in 1897, but neither reached the required two-thirds margin. Both came amid a bribery scandal. The House deadlocked over the proposed expulsion of Rep. William Perkins, 22-22, according to legislative records; and came close to expelling Rep. Hugh Joines of Elmore County with a vote of 26-16 — which was a 61.5% majority, but short of the required two-thirds.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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