Articles Tagged with SB 81

One of the main principles of our criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. However, in the 1990s, California’s leaders pursued very actively tough on crime policies and during that time more than a hundred different sentencing enhancements were enacted. Throughout the past three decades, these enhancements have added many years to the prison terms of majority of inmates. As a result, currently, California hosts the second largest prison population behind Texas.

Overwhelming evidence has demonstrated that sentencing enhancements have not been the successful deterrent to crime they were designed to be, but even more than that, they have failed to improve public safety and have resulted in unnecessarily long mass incarcerations and inequity. As a result, in the last several years, California’s leaders and legislatures have worked hard to correct the harm caused by unjust and disproportionately long sentences.   Some of the most important laws that were enacted include SB 1393, AB 2942, and SB 81.

SB 1393 or The Fair and Just Sentencing Reform Act of 2018, reformed the law on one of the most commonly used sentencing enhancements in California, namely the 5-year enhancement given for each prior serious felony conviction when a person is currently charged with a serious felony. Prior to 2019, the law specifically prohibited judges from using their discretion to dismiss the 5-year enhancement for prior serious felony. That changed with the enactment of SB 1393. SB 1393 eliminated the mandatory application of the prior serious felony enhancement and allowed judges to use their discretion to strike the enhancement in furtherance of justice.

In the last few years, California’s leaders have finally put the effort to improve the State’s criminal justice system and to course-correct its policies. One of the main principles of the criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. However, during the 1990s, the California legislature actively pursued tough on crime policies and during that time enacted more than a hundred different sentence enhancements, which have added years to the prison terms of majority of inmates. The tough on crime policies and the aggressive laws enacted as a result, have not only distorted one of the most basic legal standards of the criminal justice system, but they have also had a devastating effect on thousands of inmates, on the state budget, and have disproportionately affected marginalized and minority communities.

In 2020, Governor Newsom commissioned the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code to thoroughly examine the California Penal Code and to issue recommendations for reform. When it came to sentence enhancements, overwhelming evidence was presented that their application has failed to improve public safety and has resulted in unnecessarily long incarcerations and inequity. Studies have shown that these enhancements, which are not elements of the crime and could result in double the time a person spends in prison, have been applied disproportionately to people of color and those suffering of mental illness. During testimony before the Committee, the former Governor Brown argued that California should abolish all enhancements or, at minimum, give judges better guidance on how and when they should be applied to avoid arbitrary use.

Prior to SB 81, while judges had the authority to dismiss sentence enhancements, they almost never did so, as the law provided them with no clear guidance. Even the California Supreme Court had noted that the standards used by judges are vague. As a result, based on the Committee’s findings and recommendations on the issue, SB 81 was passed and Governor Newsom signed it into law on October 8, 2021. SB 81 became effective on January 1, 2022. Senator Skinner, who introduced the bill, has said that “SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: Let’s use sentence enhancements judiciously and only when necessary to protect the public.”

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.

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