Four months after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions renewed the federal government’s pursuit of mandatory minimum drug sentences for low-level drug crimes in federal cases, California lawmakers on Sept. 12 approved a bill to rein in this type of wasteful, ineffective and extreme drug war policy was at the state level.
With a 41 to 25 vote, the California Assembly approved Senate Bill 180, also known as the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements Act (RISE Act). The governor signed the bill into law in Oct.
“Sentencing enhancements break up families and don’t make our communities any safer”
The RISE Act, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), repeals California’s three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions. Previously the base sentence for a person possessing drugs for sale was two to four years in jail. However, if that person has two prior convictions for possession for sale, they would face an additional six years in jails, for a total of 10 years.
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“By enacting smart and effective legislation like the RISE Act, California has the opportunity to be a leader for the rest of the country in drug sentencing reform,” said Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “The RISE Act would free up taxpayer dollars for investment in community-based programs and services that improve public safety like mental health and substance use treatment.”
The RISE Act restores balance in the judicial process, address extreme sentences, and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Although rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are Whites.
Sentencing enhancements were meant to reduce the availability of drugs and deter drug selling. However, like most other drug war policies, they are a proven and costly failure. In addition to depleting state and county funds that could be spent on schools, health and social services, sentencing enhancements are a major contributor to jail overcrowding. As of 2016, there were more than 1,500 people in California jails sentenced to more than five years and the leading cause of these long sentences was non-violent drug sale offenses.
“Sentencing enhancements break up families and don’t make our communities any safer,” said Sandra Johnson, a policy fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “These extreme sentences have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable populations — Black and Brown people who have mental health issues, who struggle with addiction and who are homeless.”
As Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to advance failed Drug War policies and extreme sentencing policies, advocates applaud the passage of SB 180 and see the law as an opportunity for California to demonstrate its commitment to criminal justice policies that prioritize safety instead of punishment.