In early October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 81, a bill that contains guidelines for California courts regarding the use of sentence enhancements. SB 81 is intended to address the proliferation of sentence enhancements by California courts in the last few decades. In many cases, sentence enhancements may double the length of a prison term.
The California state Senate approved SB 81 on Sept. 9 on a vote of 23-11, after the state Assembly approved it by a vote of 46-24. The Bill goes into effect on January 1, 2022. However, its provisions are not retroactive. Newsom also signed a measure, SB 73, in October that ends mandatory prison and jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
SB 81 originated in the California legislature after the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code made recommendations about reform of the Penal Code earlier this year. Governor Newsom appointed the committee and the Legislature to extensively review California’s Penal Code and formulate recommendations to reform California’s criminal statutory law. One fact showing the need for reform is that California courts have a history of applying sentence enhancements disproportionately to Black Americans and mentally disabled people.
“SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: Let’s use sentence enhancements judiciously and only when necessary to protect the public,” said Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. “With SB 81, we can begin to reverse a stark racial disparity in California’s sentencing practices. Black Californians, especially, have been disproportionately targeted with enhancements that double the time they have to spend in prison.”
“I am deeply grateful to Sen. Skinner for authoring and Gov. Newsom for signing SB 81,” said Michael Romano, chair of the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code. “The committee is committed to improving public safety for all Californians while reducing unnecessary incarceration and inequity in the criminal legal system. SB 81 is an important step towards those goals.”
“Unnecessary sentence enhancements do nothing to prevent crime and harm from occurring in the first place, nor do they help protect the safety and well-being of our communities,” said Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a sponsor of SB 81. “Californians from across the political spectrum continue to demand the justice system prioritize prevention over harsh sentencing and ineffective incarceration, and Gov. Gavin Newsom should be commended for signing SB 81, which is reflective of what voters want and is aligned with what science and data show are the best approaches for enhancing public safety.”
Sentence enhancements are laws that increase the total incarceration term for a crime based on aspects of how the crime was committed or who committed it. Thus, sentence enhancements are not elements of a crime but additional circumstances that increase the penalty, or time served, of the underlying crime. The California Penal Code currently contains more than 150 sentence enhancements.
In 2020, former California Governor Jerry Brown testified at a hearing before the Penal Code Revision Committee, that California’s use of sentencing enhancements has become gratuitous. He argued that California should “get rid of all of the enhancements” or steer courts away from imposing them. Testimony before the committee showed no evidence that sentence enhancements have improved public safety.
While California judges currently have the authority to dismiss sentencing enhancements, they rarely do, in part, because California law does not provide clear and adequate guidance for using the enhancements. SB 81 establishes guidance by requiring courts to give “great weight” to evidence that proves certain mitigating circumstances, such as the following:
- The underlying conviction is not a violent felony,
- Application of the enhancement would have a discriminatory racial impact,
- The underlying conviction is connected to mental illness, prior victimization, or childhood trauma,
- The enhancement is based on a prior conviction that is over five years old.
If a judge concludes that dismissing the enhancement would endanger public safety, then the court will not consider these circumstances.
John Patrick Dolan is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law, the highest achievement awarded by the State Bar of California to attorneys in the field of criminal law. The advice, guidance, and representation of experienced criminal defense counsel may be crucial to achieving the best possible result in any criminal matter. John Patrick Dolan has forty years of criminal defense experience. Contact Dolan Law Offices today at 760-775-3739 or 562-824-4007 to discuss your situation or find out more online here.