A bill authored by Senator Holly Mitchell to repeal ineffective sentencing enhancements for prior drug convictions passed the California Senate Public Safety Committee.
“Piling extra years onto jail sentences for repeat offenders of non-violent crimes overcrowds our prisons, sucks money out of taxpayers’ pockets and makes punishing a greater priority than preventing crime,” said Senator Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes much of South Los Angeles. “It doesn’t work. Why continue to waste lives and money on a failed policy?”
Currently, someone convicted for drug sale, possession for sale, or similar offenses can receive an additional three years for every prior conviction for a similar drug offense. For example, a person facing two to four years for possessing drugs for sale could have an extra six years added to their sentence if they have two prior convictions. Senate Bill 966 would address the unjust and extreme sentences that have resulted in persons suffering addiction to be sentenced to over 10 years in county jail.
“Because people of color are often the targets of criminalization and incarceration, drug sentencing enhancements disproportionately impact them,” said Emily Harris, State Field Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We need to stop wasting money on a policy that doesn’t work, and instead invest in education, health, housing, and drug and mental health treatment in our communities.”
Enhancements were originally intended to deter drug selling, however like most drug war policies, they are a proven failure. At the federal level, policymakers have proposed legislation that would reduce sentences and failed drug war policies broadly. By passing this bill, California can serve as a model for other states across the country.
“Decades of research have failed to show that long sentences improve public safety,” says Lizzie Buchen, Statewide Advocacy and Communications Coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “If anything, long sentences exacerbate the root causes of incarceration, including poverty, social exclusion, homelessness, unemployment, substance use, and mental illness.”
Governor Brown is backing a ballot measure to allow parole for people in prisons without consideration of sentencing enhancements for prior offenses. If passed by the voters, it would only apply to state prison, not to jails. SB 966 would reduce the pressure on counties to spend billions more building and staffing new jails.