Many in the legal community agree that overused and unfairly distributed sentence enhancements remain a large problem within the criminal justice system. These enhancements can drastically lengthen sentences, adding years and even decades. Now, prisons are overcrowded and people of color are disproportionally impacted by significantly longer sentences.
While judges have the power by law to dismiss sentence enhancements, they rarely exercise the right to do so. As the numbers show, 80% of inmates are serving a prison term extended by sentence enhancements, and of them, 25% are inmates that have had at least 3 enhancements added to their sentence. What used to be a system preaching the idea that the punishment will fit the crime, now lacks structure and direction.
For years now, California state leaders have been speaking out against such enhancement practices, saying that the system didn’t offer clear advice on how to proceed when deciding if sentence enhancements might be necessary.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, for instance, centered his platform around this issue, and within the last few months, he has successfully introduced initiatives discouraging his deputies from seeking such enhancements.
Former Governor Jerry Brown argued for either the abolition of all sentence enhancements or reform for a state law that offers judges greater instruction on the implementation of these enhancements. The Supreme Court even noted that standards by which a judge can decide if a sentence dismissal is appropriate were an “amorphous concept.”
In efforts to clear this confusion, State Senator for California’s 9th district Nancy Skinner proposed Senate Bill 81. With her bill, she sought to put forth clear guidelines for issuing sentence enhancements to ensure that these enhancements are enforced only when truly necessary. No longer would enhancements be added to sentences for nonviolent crimes unless the judge deemed it would endanger the public.
“SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: Use sentence enhancements judiciously and only when necessary to protect the public,” Skinner said.
The new guidelines proposed by Senate Bill 81 will provide clarity by encouraging judges only to issue sentence enhancements when it is an issue of public safety. When determining if a sentence enhancement is appropriate, this bill asks judges to look at the following circumstances surrounding the case at the bar:
- Whether the conviction in question resulted from an offense nonviolent in nature or one that didn’t involve the use of a firearm;
- Whether distributing a sentence enhancement would have an unfair racial impact on the accused;
- If the sentence enhancement is given to a conviction that is over five years old;
- Whether the conviction in question was related to the defendant’s mental health issues or childhood trauma;
- How old the defendant was when the offense in question was committed (whether or not they were a juvenile at the time); and
- If the total sentence or the number of enhancements received for a single offense exceeds 20 years.
This bill was introduced in the California Senate on December 15 of last year, but just recently was signed in to law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 8 of 2021.
For more info about this proposed law, call Mr. Spolin, Mr. Nguyen, or Mr. Cutcher at their law firm, Spolin Law P.C., (310) 879-5499.