Articles Tagged with sentencing enhancements

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.

Despite the ongoing efforts by California’s leaders to improve the State’s criminal justice system and to make it fairer, California still has some of the most severe sentence enhancements in the United States.

One of the main principles of the criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. Unfortunately, California’s hyper punitive policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, resulted in a serious distortion of one of the most basic legal standards of the criminal justice system. By the end of the 1990s, California’s legislature had managed to enact more than one hundred different enhancements, which have added years to the prison sentences of majority of inmates. The State’s aggressive sentencing enhancement laws have led to mass incarceration, overburdening of the state’s budget, and most importantly, have disproportionately affected marginalized and minority communities and their economies.

There have been numerous studies on enhancements that have shown that adding time to an already lengthy sentence has not been a successful deterrent to crime and has not had a positive impact on public safety. In line with these studies, the California legislature has been working hard to enact laws that will prevent the application of indiscriminate sentence enhancements while still allowing judges to impose harsh and lengthy sentences when the conduct demands it.

On January 1, 2018, SB 180 went into effect and repealed the prior California law, which required a sentencing court to impose a 3-year enhancement for every prior conviction for controlled substance crimes. The only exception left was in instances where the prior convictions were for crimes that involve the use of a minor in the commission of the crime. Similarly, prior to January 1, 2020, the law required that a sentencing court impose a 1-year enhancement for each prior prison or felony jail term. Starting January 1, 2020, the SB 136 law limited the application of this enhancement to defendants who had served a prison term for a sexually violent offense.

While criminal justice reform advocates had welcomed these laws, criticism remained, as the laws did not apply retroactively. SB 483 or The Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act corrects that by applying SB 180 and SB 136 retroactively. Governor Newsom signed SB 483 into law on October 8, 2021, which went into effect on January 1, 2022. This law is the latest attempt by the California legislature to correct the harm caused by unjust and disproportionately long sentences. It has long been argued that long sentences cause more harm than good, as they have been proven ineffective as deterrents to crime, and have had negative impact on the well being and safety of defendants and communities alike. As the Legislature specifically states in the new bill, the goal of the RISE Act is to address systemic racial biases in sentencing and to ensure equal justice under the law.

Under the new law, inmates do not have to petition the court for resentencing. Instead, the new law requires that the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) identify all incarcerated individuals serving sentences that include one of those enhancements. CDCR had until March 1, 2022, to identify all individuals that have served their base sentences and any other enhancements, and who are currently serving time based on the repealed enhancements, and until July 1, 2022, to identify all other individuals.

Many people in California have wondered whether SB620 or Senate Bill 620 is retroactive. Ultimately, prior to the passage of this bill local judges did not have discretion when it came to dismissing sentencing enhancements decided by prosecutors in regards to felony cases involving the use of firearms. Since the passage of SB620 in October of last year, judges are now able to determine or decide whether the sentencing enhancement given an offender who is convicted of a felony crime involving a firearm is proper or fitting to the case at hand. However, this still doesn’t meet many individuals’ definitions of equality.

Enhancements in these types of cases meant those convicted may be sentenced to an additional ten or 20 years in prison, or even a life term depending on the circumstances of the case. While the new law does not give judges permission to completely do away with enhancements altogether, it does give judges at the local level the discretion to determine on a case-by-case basis whether the enhancement given an individual should be shorter or longer depending on the circumstances and facts of the crime. In simple terms, a judge may make the decision as to whether an offender who was given a 20 year sentence enhancement should have perhaps been given a ten year enhancement instead, or even life in prison in extremely serious felony cases involving the use of a firearm.

So is SB620 retroactive, meaning those who have received sentencing enhancements for felony crimes involving a firearm prior to the passage of this bill are eligible to have their enhancements reexamined? Yes, in situations where an offender’s sentence is enhanced by 20 years or a life term. While you may be eligible for less harsh sentencing enhancement, resentencing is generally reserved for those who have committed what are considered less serious felony offenses such as drug possession or low level theft. Not everyone has the opportunity to reduce an enhanced sentence, particularly those who have been found guilty of what are considered extremely serious or heinous crimes. Do all felons have access to equal protection? This is a question many criminal defense attorneys have pondered, and one that may be vigorously contested in the future.

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