Plan to Repeal Unnecessary One-Year Enhancements on Sentences Approved by Senate

SB 136 repeals a commonly used and expensive one-year sentence enhancement that is added to each prior prison or felony jail term that an individual has served

On Monday, legislation that would repeal a one-year sentence enhancement passed the Senate on a 21-11 vote.  The legislation now moves to the Assembly for committee hearings in the coming weeks.

Currently, if an individual is convicted of a felony and has served time in jail or prison for a prior felony, a one-year enhancement is added to their sentence even if neither their current nor prior felony is serious or violent and even if other harsher enhancements already apply due to the crime being violent.

Significant research refutes that these enhancements help to deter individuals from committing future crimes, reduce recidivism, or increase public safety.  Instead, these enhancements put a significant financial burden on taxpayers and families statewide.

The bill would impact about one-third of the people serving time currently in California prisons.  Given incarceration costs of around $80,000 per year, the enhancement is extremely expensive to taxpayers.

Senator Scott Wiener, who is author of this legislation, believes that the one-year enhancement accomplishes very little, since there are many other enhancements under California law, particularly for violent crime.

California has some of the most severe sentence enhancement for prior convictions in the nation. In the California Penal Code, over 100 separate sections enhance sentences based on an individual’s current offense and or record of prior convictions.

As of 2016, 79% of people under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) custody had some sort of sentence enhancement attached to their base sentence, and 25% had three or more enhancements stacked on top. SB 136 would amend one of the most commonly used sentencing enhancements, which impacted one-third of individuals convicted in 2017.

“These enhancements perpetuate mass incarceration, costing taxpayers dearly and undermining efforts at rehabilitation,” said Senator Wiener. “These ‘tough on crime’ policies lead to California spending more on incarceration than on higher education, overcrowd our prison system, and devastate impacts on communities of color and those impacted by the failed war on drugs. If we actually want to rehabilitate people – as we should – we should implement policies that actually work. Spending billions on failed mass incarceration is irresponsible.”

The CDCR estimates that there are over 15,000 counts of this enhancement that have been added to sentences of individuals in prison.  Senator Wiener believes this to be a conservative estimate, not taking into account local county jail sentences that are also impacted by the enhancement.

“SB 136 will help advance racial justice and keep families together,” said Mica Doctoroff, Legislative Attorney with the ACLU of California. “California currently has some of the harshest sentencing enhancements in the country, disproportionately targeting people of color. It’s time to close this shameful chapter of mass incarceration in California’s history.”

“The language in the California penal code increased from just over 200 thousand words to over one million words, including descriptions for hundreds of sentencing enhancements,” said Amber-Rose Howard of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “Sentencing enhancements are cruel, counter-productive and demonstrably racist. Repealing the one-year sentence enhancement for prior convictions corrects a failed policy and is a moderate step in the right direction to move our state closer to more equitable and just public safety practices.”

“We applaud the Senate for taking action to repeal the most commonly used sentence enhancement in California, which accounts for over 15,000 additional years being served in California prisons today,” said Emily Harris, Policy Manager at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We know that incarceration destabilizes entire families and communities, and the longer the sentence, the greater the emotional and economic cost on loved ones.”

SB 136 does not alter an individual’s base sentence for their current felony charge or amend any other enhancements for violent, repeat offenders.

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