Here’s How SB 81 Will Reform Sentencing in California

Empty Prison Cell

It’s no secret that many elements of the criminal justice system have imposed unfair prison sentences, especially enhancements that can add decades to the total time served in prison. This has led to overcrowded prisons, disproportionately affecting people of color and those suffering from mental illnesses.

Sentence enhancements are not related to the original crime, rather, they are add-ons based on how the crime was committed and the nature of the circumstances involving the crime. For example, using a firearm to commit a robbery can add anywhere between 10 and 20 years, while any association with organized crime could result in two to 10 more years in prison. The latter depends on the severity of the offense.

Like many aspects of the criminal justice system, there is a large degree of variation in how certain crimes are interpreted. For example, it is alleged that California’s current sentencing enhancement laws disproportionately affect people of color and those with mental illnesses. It is worth mentioning that judges have the legal ability to dismiss sentence enhancements, but they rarely do so.

Statistics show that nearly 80% of inmates are serving more time in prison because of sentence enhancements. 25% of inmates have at least three enhancements added to their sentence. These are concerning numbers since there are more than 150 separate sentence enhancements that can be added to a convict’s prison term.

However, the recently introduced California SB 81 would direct judges to avoid sentencing enhancements for a range of crimes, especially as they relate to the following:

  • Nonviolent crimes that did not involve a working gun
  • Convictions that are attributable to mental health disorders
  • Prior convictions that are older than five years
  • Juvenile crimes – see SB 383

In addition to the above, SB 81 also discourages sentence enhancements if a convict’s total prison sentence exceeds 20 years, and criminal cases that may have a ‘disparate racial impact.’

Once it is passed, California would join at least ten other states that have a more moderate view towards sentence enhancements.

The Momentum Against Long-Term Sentences Has Been Picking Up

Voices from both sides of the spectrum, Democrat and Republican, have identified long-term sentencing as morally reprehensible. This phenomenon has several undesirable effects on those incarcerated, including mental health disorders and lower life spans.

A major concern with sentence enhancements is the level of ambiguity involved. In fact, the Supreme Court has mostly refrained from commenting on the use of sentence enhancements and allows the presiding judge to use them as they see fit.

Nancy Skinner, the State Senator for California’s 9th district, proposed SB 81 to provide clearer guidelines for handing out sentence enhancements to ensure the judges only enforce them when absolutely necessary. The point is to get closer to the idea of a criminal justice system that rewards punishments befitting the crime.

Why Sentence Enhancements Are Not a Good Idea

Imposing lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent terms has never served its intended purpose. It is particularly ineffective against drug crimes because drug sellers are easily replaced by the next person in line. In other words, adding lengthier sentences could be detrimental for both the individual and society as a whole.

Moreover, the longer a person spends in prison, the higher the costs of incarceration, mostly because of increased health care needs. Prisoners with long convictions need more access to health resources as they get older. Perhaps more importantly, a convict’s health declines more rapidly in prison. As a result of their health care problems, the annual cost of incarceration can be over $30,000 per prisoner, and it could go much higher for elderly prisoners.

Why “Sending a Message” Does Not Work

Many judges believe that imposing a lengthy prison sentence would ‘send a message’ to convicts that this type of crime would not be tolerated. However, scholars have disagreed.

The use of extended prison sentences as a deterrent has been questioned for years. Many scholars argue that criminals are unlikely to think about the time they will spend in prison, whether their sentence is three, five, or even thirty years.

Wrapping Up

Excessive prison sentences take a significant amount of public time, resources, and money. They produce diminishing returns and have negative consequences for public safety.

A better approach would be to reduce time served in prison, without harming public safety.  SB 81 is a step in the right direction, at least when it comes to non-violent crimes, and especially as they relate to people of color and those suffering from mental disorders.

If you or someone you know is facing an investigation, or is arrested, you should seek professional counsel at the earliest. Time is of the essence and you should talk to an experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer. Our California team has years of experience in successfully resolving cases that are being prosecuted by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. Click here for Free Consultation.

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