Off to a quick start in the new session, Senator Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco) has declared that restructuring California’s criminal justice system will be one of his priorities in the new year.
Joining a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates and co-authors within the capitol corridors, Senator Wiener has formally presented Senate Bill 136. In an effort to repeal a mandatory one-year sentence enhancement that is currently added to an individual’s base sentence for each prior prison or felony jail term served, Wiener hopes SB 136 will gather enough support to eliminate this “unnecessary” rule.
As the law stands, a one-year enhancement penalty must be added to a repeat offender’s sentence “even if neither their current nor prior felony is serious or violent.” According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), this statute impacts about one-third of the prisoners currently doing time in California’s slammers.
In his announcement, Wiener argued that research “refutes that these enhancements help to deter individuals from committing crimes, reduce recidivism, or increase public safety.” Instead, Wiener, a former lawyer, insisted that these enhancements only serve to complicate and increase the “financial burden on taxpayers and families statewide.”
California is confronting its ‘tough-on-crime history’
California has some of the most severe sentence enhancement for prior convictions in the nation. However, highly influenced by the state’s ever increasing Democratic majority, the justice system as a whole has recently been receiving a major overhaul.
Just last October, State Senators Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles) introduced an unprecedented collection of bills coming in the form of the Equity and Justice package. The package, which mainly focused on reforming prison limits and juvenile justice sentences, received overwhelming support and since then many legislators are following in the same direction.
Wiener’s SB 136 takes issue with the fact that California’s penal code has over 100 separate sections that enhance sentences based on an individual’s current offense and or record of prior convictions. Furthermore, in 2016, 79% of people within the custody of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had one or more prison enhancements already attached to their base sentence.
“Automatically enhancing an individual’s sentence due to their history does not deter crime or increase public safety,” said Senator Wiener. “These enhancements are part of California’s tough-on-crime history, which has led to our state spending more on incarceration than on higher education, overcrowding in our prison system, and devastating impacts on communities of color and those impacted by the failed war on drugs. Repealing this unnecessary sentence enhancement will help our state spend less on ineffective policies that do nothing to increase public safety.”
Although it is important to note that SB 136 would amend one of the most commonly used sentencing enhancements affecting roughly one-third of the prison population, the proposal would not interfere with an individual’s base sentence ordered for any current felony charge or repeat offenders.
“Sentence enhancements based on prior convictions are ineffective, draconian policies that augment racial disparities in the justice system,” said Mica Doctoroff, Legislative Attorney for the ACLU of California. “It’s long time California leave these failed policies behind to advance true justice and racial equity.”
Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) is the principal co-author on the legislation, and it is co-authored by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), and Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and Shirley Weber (D-San Diego).
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