Tens of thousands of convicted criminals are in state prison longer than the sentence for their crime due to California sentencing enhancements.
The Investigative Unit of “NBC Bay Area News” aired a video on television Feb. 26 about unfair and unjust state prison sentences.
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“Enhancements leave thousands of California inmates with extraordinarily long sentences,” said NBC reporter Stephen Stock.
Critics and researchers say dozens of “extra” provisions exist in California’s penal code, which can be added on as a sentencing enhancement. This has led to overcrowding of the state’s prisons and inequity in sentences depending on the discretion of the prosecutor and judicial officer, reports Stock.
In 2010, California’s prison system had become so overcrowded the United States Supreme Court ruled that being incarcerated in one of the state’s 33 prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Mike Vitiello, a professor of law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, said, “Everybody [loses] when we have these overcrowded prisons.” It makes the entire system more dangerous and makes rehabilitation of inmates extremely difficult. “So we all suffer with this over-elaborate criminal justice system that just piles on these excessive, obscenely excessive sentences.”
Reform advocates argue these enhancements are unjust because they punish inmates multiple times for the same crime. Sentence enhancements contribute to the high cost and overcrowding of California’s prison system, Stock reported.
These enhancements, such as the “Three Strikes” law or the “10-20-life” gun enhancement law, carry severe mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors often hold them over the heads of defendants to entice guilty pleas, said Stock.
Advocates of sentencing reform like professor Vitiello and State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) say the data shows that sentence enhancements are not effective in reducing violent crime.
“We really need to say enough is enough on sentence enhancements,” said Hancock, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee in Sacramento. “Our (state) population has about doubled (since 1980), but our prison population has grown by over 400 percent.”
“NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit” visited San Quentin for a conversation with inmates currently serving decades-long or life sentences because of sentence enhancements.
Antoine Watie told Stock, “In 1999 I committed the act of killing my stepfather after he abused my mother and my little brother,”
Watie said he stood outside when he was refused entrance into his stepfather’s house and argued with him. At some point Watie thought he saw his stepfather reach for a gun, so he shot him through the screen door in self-defense.
A jury convicted him of manslaughter. Seventeen years later, Watie still sits in San Quentin. He said, “I was sentenced to 32-years-to-life. Seven years for the actual act of killing my stepfather and 25-to-life for the gun enhancement.”
Because the bullet passed through the screen door, the prosecutor at the trial added an enhancement for “shooting into an occupied dwelling,” meaning his conviction carried a mandatory minimum 25-to-life sentence. The judge had no discretion to alter the sentence.
There are 40,000 inmates currently serving time under the “Three Strikes” law alone. It is just one of dozens of possible enhancements prosecutors can add onto criminal charges, according to reporter Stock.
“We need to change the culture in prisons from …
punishment to a culture that acknowledges
the ability of people to change and encourages that change”
Some commonly used sentence enhancements include prior convictions, the use of a firearm, causing great bodily injury, shooting into an occupied building, shooting from a car or being in a gang, says Stock.
The “10-20-life” gun enhancement adds 10 years for brandishing a gun, 20 years for firing a gun and a life sentence for shooting someone in the commission of a crime. An armed robber who fires a warning shot, for instance, could face an additional 20 years on top of the robbery charge, reports Stock.
Demond Lewis, 42, received a 15-year sentence for attempted murder when he shot another man in the leg. But a prosecutor added four separate enhancements onto Lewis’ charges, all tied to the same gun and the same crime. While Lewis got 15 years in prison for an attempted murder conviction, he got another 94 years for the sentencing enhancements, reported Stock.
“The time is way more than you would even get for the crime itself,” said Lewis, who is now serving 109-years-to-life. “In my case, I was given a couple of 25-to-life sentences for the same gun,” Lewis said. “So I got 25-years-to-life for this, 25-to-life for that.”
Lewis has been incarcerated since the age of 27, and without the enhancements, would have already served his 15-year prison sentence. But unless there’s a change in the law, Lewis will likely die in prison.
Vitiello says sentence enhancements are largely a product of the tough on crime era of the 1980s and 1990s. Each time a high-profile crime occurred, lawmakers would propose a new enhancement for that crime. Vitiello says sentences for violent crimes increased dramatically.
According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust, sentences for violent crimes between 1990 and 2009 grew by 63 percent.
California spends an enormous amount of money on incarcerating aging felons, said Vitiello. The professor wants to see comprehensive reform of the entire system, starting with the creation of a sentencing commission that would use data to determine what works and what doesn’t.
“There are very few people in the legislature who are ready and willing to take this on,” Vitiello said. “Their answer, to some degree, is let the public do it through the initiative process.”
Hancock agrees with Vitiello that California desperately needs prison reform. She’s been trying to push for that reform for years in Sacramento, but she often runs into roadblocks.
She says she spends a lot of time pushing back against new sentence enhancements proposed by her colleagues. She said the state spends far too much money on punishment and incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation, drug and mental health counseling.”
Hancock argues, “We really need to change the culture in prisons from … punishment to a culture that acknowledges the ability of people to change and encourages that change,” she says.
The senator recently helped pass prison reform legislation and said, “I think we’re seeing a recognition (by many lawmakers) that things have got to change.”
But, she says those legislative battles are often against heavy opposition from lobbyists representing sheriffs, DA’s and police chiefs.