Advocacy groups argue that the so-called war on drugs drives mass incarceration and racial disparities in the US judicial system, with more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the U.S. in 2014, 80 percent of which, according to data from the Drug Policy Alliance, were for possession only.
While California has dealt with part of this problem by making simple possession charges misdemeanors through Proposition 47, there are layers to the problem of mass incarceration and one of them is a three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions.
SB 966, sponsored by Senator Holly Mitchell, “repeals the three-year sentence enhancement for each of a defendant’s prior convictions for one of a list of drug commerce crimes, where the defendant is convicted in the current case of another such crime.”
The enhancement for prior drug crime convictions was enacted in 1985 through AB 2320. The bill included legislative intent “to punish more severely those persons who are in the regular business of trafficking in, or production of, narcotics and those persons who deal in large quantities of narcotics as opposed to individuals who have a less serious, occasional, or relatively minor role in this activity.”
At the time, the sponsor of the bill explained that the bill was modeled after federal drug crime laws with the intent to eliminate any incentive “to traffic [in drugs] in California where sentences are significantly lighter than in federal law.”
However, as the current bill sponsor states, “These enhancements have the effect of sentencing thousands of people — mainly young men and women of color — to long periods of incarceration in overcrowded state prisons and county jails, destabilizing families and communities.”
Senator Mitchell and others believe that this approach failed, and produced an “enormously expensive” system that has, instead of reducing drug use, robbed “state and local budgets that should be spent on schools, health and social services, and policies that actually reduce drug use — drug treatment, after-school programs, and housing, among them.”
The so-called RISE Act, they argue, “will free up taxpayer dollars for investment in cost-effective community-based programs instead of costly jail expansion.” By repealing these enhancements, SB 966, they argue, “would reduce jail overcrowding and stop the rush to build and staff costly new jails.”
Senator Mitchell argues, “Sentence enhancements based on prior convictions target the poorest and most marginalized people in our communities – those with substance use and mental health
needs, and those who have struggled to integrate into free society. Counties are building new jails to imprison more people with long sentences, funneling money away from community-based programs and services. People with drug issues, particularly those in low-income communities of color, are increasingly left with the choice of seeking help in a jail or not seeking help at all.”
“Because people of color are often the targets of criminalization and incarceration, drug sentencing enhancements disproportionately impact them,” said Emily Harris, State Field Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We need to stop wasting money on this harmful, punitive policy, and instead invest in what works: education, health, housing, and drug and mental health treatment in our communities.”
“Decades of research have failed to show that long sentences improve public safety,” says Lizzie Buchen, Statewide Advocacy and Communications Coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “If anything, long sentences exacerbate the root causes of incarceration, including poverty, social exclusion, homelessness, unemployment, substance use, and mental illness.”
“Long prison sentences break up families. Because of my prior drug sales case, this enhancement resulted in me being sentenced to 6 years for a $5 drug sale,” said Theresa Martinez, who has been imprisoned for a total of 23 years as a result of her addiction to drugs. “ The thousands of dollars California has wasted on punishing me could have gone to what I really needed: medical treatment, therapy, housing, and a job.”
“Drugs are cheaper, more powerful, and more widely available than at any time in our history. The lock-em-up policies of the drug war don’t work, and we need to focus our tax-supported resources on our communities, not jails,” said Eunisses Hernandez, Policy Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“As a public defender, I have witnessed how the three-year prison enhancement has relentlessly punished my indigent clients, the mentally ill and drug addicted, imprisoning them for unconscionable sentences over crumbs of drugs,” said Vilaska Nguyen, who is an attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office. “Repealing this enhancement will force the criminal justice system to focus on meaningful rehabilitation, which is a promising step towards justice. The RISE Act offers hope that we can treat our fellow citizens with compassion, dignity and mercy.”
However, opponents like the California Police Chiefs Association argues “that it is wrong to treat repeat drug offenders the same as a person convicted of his first offense.” They are concerned about the current opioid epidemic and states, “Clearly there is an enhanced level of seriousness posed to [the public] by career opioid traffickers and the enhanced sentence under current law should be retained.”
But such laws seem to have proven ineffective in the war on drugs. The Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy for drug law reform, argues that the war on drugs is a driver of mass incarceration and racial disparities in our system. They write, “People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.”
Blacks and Hispanics together make up 13 and 17 percent of the U.S. population respectively, however, blacks comprise 31 percent of those arrested and 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law offenses. Meanwhile, Latinos comprise 20 percent of people in state prisons for drug offenses and 37 percent of those incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses.
They write, “National-level data on arrests of people of Latino ethnicity are incomplete. Yet among drug arrest incidents in 2014 in which ethnicity was reported, more than 22 percent of those arrested were Latino. State and local level data show that Latinos are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug possession violations.”
All told, “Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.”
Senator Mitchell argues that SB 966 is part of the answer to this puzzle. The bill, advocates say, will address extreme sentences, reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, restore balance in the judicial process, and stop “the cruel punishment of persons suffering from a substance abuse disorder. “
They argue, “Sentencing enhancements do not prevent or reduce drug sales and have destabilizing effects on families and communities. Research finds that the length of sentences does not provide any deterrent or significant incapacitation effect: longer sentences for drug offenses do not reduce recidivism, nor do they affect drug availability. Most people who commit crimes are either unaware of penalties or do not think they will be caught. Research shows that people incarcerated for selling drugs are quickly replaced by other people.”
Governor Brown has endorsed a “measure for the 2016 ballot that will allow persons to be paroled after they complete their base sentence, regardless of enhancements. However, that measure only applies to persons sentenced to state prison, and will have no effect on jail overcrowding.”
In late April, this bill fell short on a close vote in the State Senate. The bill needed 21 votes to pass the Senate, but received 18 votes, with 14 Republican Senators and three Democrats opposed.
Five Senators abstained, including Senator Lois Wolk who represents Davis. Please contact Senator Wolk’s office either by phone ((916) 651-4003) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org and ask her to vote yes on SB 966.
“Piling extra years onto jail sentences for repeat offenders of non-violent crimes overcrowds our prisons, sucks money out of taxpayers’ pockets and makes punishing a greater priority than preventing crime,” said Senator Mitchell. “It doesn’t work. Why continue to waste lives and money on a failed policy?”
—David M. Greenwald reporting