Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed laws aimed at reducing prison sentences for people convicted of drug- and gang-related crimes, despite concerns from prosecutors that the measures will hinder their effort to protect Californians.
Legislation signed by the governor includes Senate Bill 81, which seeks to reduce the number of sentence enhancements in criminal cases that can double prison terms.
More than 150 enhancements exist for aggravating factors that include prior criminal records, use of a gun in the commission of a crime and offenses involving minors.
The law by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would have judges dismiss enhancements in certain cases, including when they would result in “discriminatory racial impact” or a sentence of more than 20 years, or when the offense is connected to mental illness, prior victimization or childhood trauma. Skinner said enhancements disproportionately affect people of color.
“If sentence enhancements were applied fairly, this wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. “However, data shows that in California, you are much more likely to receive a sentence enhancement if you are Black. SB 81 tells our courts: Let’s stop unfair sentences and use enhancements only when necessary to protect the public.”
The California State Sheriffs’ Assn. opposes SB 81 “because it will likely result in many otherwise appropriate sentence enhancements being dismissed,” said Cory Salzillo, the group’s legislative director.
A companion measure signed by Newsom, SB 483, allows the retroactive repeal of sentence enhancements for prior prison or county jail felony terms. The governor also signed Assembly Bill 333, which restricts the use of sentence enhancements for alleged gang crimes.
Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) said her measure aims to reduce the list of crimes allowing gang enhancements to be charged, prohibit the use of the current charge as proof of a pattern of criminal gang activity, and separate gang allegations from underlying charges at trial.
The senator said that current gang enhancements have weak definitions and that 92% of people with gang enhancements in the state are people of color.
Kamlager said the bill is “a step forward in prioritizing due process within our criminal legal system” that will result in taking “the first step in addressing the pain unfairly and egregiously inflicted by gang enhancements upon California’s communities.”
The measure was opposed by the California District Attorneys Assn., which said it shows a misunderstanding of the way street gangs operate by requiring prosecutors to show a crime was committed to advance a gang as an organization.
“Street gangs don’t operate that way,” said El Dorado County Dist. Atty. Vern Pierson, president of the association.
“We are seeing crimes throughout the state of California up dramatically directly related to gangs,” Pierson said. “Unquestionably [the new law] will hamper our ability to go after criminal street gangs.”
Newsom signed a measure Tuesday that ends mandatory prison and jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. SB 73 was written by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).
The state adopted the mandatory sentences during the so-called war on drugs, and Wiener said they deny judges the discretion to order probation for nonviolent drug offenses rather than prison or jail sentences.
“If we are serious about ending the war on drugs, which has been a racist policy failure, then we must start by expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who commit nonviolent drug offenses,” Wiener said. “It’s simple: Judges should not be forced to send someone to jail if they think noncarceral options are more fitting.”