Critics Say Long Sentences Failed to Reduce Drug Sales, Exacerbated Racial Disparities in Sentencing, Crippled State and Local Budgets
(From Press Release) — The California Senate took a step to address what many described as an expensive failed policy that exacerbated racial disparities in sentencing by passing SB 180 by Senators Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara of Long Beach. The bill passed along party lines, 22-13, with most Democrats supporting the reform, and most Republicans opposing.
The RISE Act, for Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements, would repeal a three-year mandatory enhancement for prior drug convictions that are added to any new conviction. Today, someone convicted for sale or possession for sale of a miniscule amount of drugs, can face 3-5 years plus an additional three years in jail for each prior conviction for similar drug offenses. Public defenders have testified in legislative committees that homeless, mentally ill and addicted persons are incredibly vulnerable to these unfair sentences.
Essentially, this enhancement punishes a person twice for prior drug convictions without addressing any of the root causes of a person’s involvement with drugs. Experts have concluded that these sentence enhancements have contributed to jail and prison overcrowding, and do little or nothing to deter drug sales, or to reduce the amount of drugs or drug dealing in communities. Further, sentence enhancements ultimately target the poorest and most marginalized people in our communities—those with substance use and mental health needs who have struggled to reintegrate into society.
“Long prison sentences have been proven not to be successful at reducing the availability of drugs in our communities nor have they helped our communities become a safer place for us to live or raise our families,” said Sandra Johnson Policy Fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “What enhancements do is overcrowd the punishment system with large amounts of black and brown people, and tear apart families for years.”
The RISE Act would free up funds that could be invested in programs and services that improve public safety, including community-based mental health and substance use treatment, job programs, and affordable housing. Additionally address and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. While rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations.
“Today California took an important step toward dismantling the failed war on drugs, which has targeted poor communities of color,” said Jim Lindburg, Legislative Director for the Friends Committee on Legislation. “People need our help and support – not more punishment.”
Advocates laud the Senate’s passage of SB 180, movement to end wasteful incarceration spending in favor of community reinvestments. With SB 180, California moves closer to repealing unreasonable and extreme sentences that are strictly punitive instead of prioritizing safety and healing for communities. This stands in stark contrast to the stated intent of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Many Republican and Democratic leaders in the Congress propose to roll back the extreme sentencing regimes of the drug war; but Sessions has called for more crackdowns and tougher sentencing regimes, despite the evidence that these policies were expensive failures.
This bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Drug Policy Alliance, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, California Public Defenders Association, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Friends Committee on Legislation of California.