Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new laws that cut back on numerous sentencing enhancements and ease the state’s sentencing requirements.
Starting in January, nonviolent drug offenders will no longer face mandatory prison or jail sentences, according to an Oct. 12, 2021 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Newsom have approved further sentencing cutbacks over the opposition of police groups and prosecutors,” the article said.
Felonies that impose one of three sentence possibilities—such as the three, six, or nine years under penal code 245(b) or three, four or six years for robbery—will only require the maximum incarceration in the most extreme cases.
Significant new limits on sentencing enhancements relating to the use of a firearm, infliction of injury, priors, or gang enhancements, which can increase sentences by one to 25 years, are also part of Sen. Nancy Skinner’s D-Berkeley SB81.
Senate Bill 81 adds numerous sentence considerations for a judge, such as the defendant’s mental health, age at the time of a prior conviction, racial implications and overall length of sentence. The bill discourages sentencing terms of 20 years or more for relatively minor crimes. The Chronicle said that currently a judge can refuse to impose increases “in the interest of justice,” but that standard has been narrowly applied.
An annual report by the California Commission for Revision of the Penal Code reported in February 2021 that Black and Latino people were disproportionately affected by sentencing increases under previous laws.
Increased sentences for such things as a defendant’s criminal record or gang membership “are both just and logical,” Jeannine Pacioni, District Attorney for Monterey County, said in opposition to Skinner’s bill.
But according to the Commission, “Defendants given longer terms for use of a gun were 81% Black, Latino or Latina.” More than 92% of gang enhancements were given to Blacks and Latinos despite a proliferation of White supremacist gangs.
California’s prison population rose to nearly twice its designed capacity in 2011, following 35 years of increased sentences.
A defense lawyers’ group called California Attorneys for Criminal Justice said the current system of lengthy sentence enhancements “has contributed to California’s mass-incarceration crisis.”