Legislature Approves Bill Ending Mandatory Jail Time for Nonviolent Drug Offenses

SB 73 would help end mass incarceration and California’s War on Drugs

By Vanguard Staff

Sacramento – California adopted mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes during the height of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 90s, thus fueling mass incarceration.  SB 73, authored by Senator Scott Wiener, would end mandatory prison and jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

This week it passed the Assembly by a vote of 42-26, and the Senate on concurrence by a vote of 23-12. It will now head to the Governor’s desk for final approval. Senator Wiener worked closely on the bill with Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), who authored an essentially identical version in 2019, which did not pass.

“If we are serious about ending the War on Drugs, which has been a racist policy failure, then we must start by expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who commit nonviolent drug offenses,” said Senator Wiener. “It’s simple: judges should not be forced to send someone to jail if they think non-carceral options are more fitting. SB 73 is an important criminal justice reform bill that will remove another harmful vestige of the War on Drugs era – mandatory minimum jail time for nonviolent drug offenses.”

“The War on Drugs has since been widely acknowledged as a racist policy failure—costing huge amounts of money while tearing apart communities and not making us safer,” Senator’s Wiener office said this week in a release.  “Current mandatory minimum sentencing requirements deny judges discretion to order probation for nonviolent drug offenses, and sends more people to prison and keeps them in jail or prison longer.

“We must work to provide judges with alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses  – particularly in cases where someone is struggling with substance use disorder – instead of defaulting to incarceration.”

The Senator’s office noted that “Not only is mass incarceration bad for public health, it’s also a giant expense for California in a time when we face massive budget cuts and an economic recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown. Mass incarceration costs our state unnecessary billions that should be going to priorities like schools, healthcare, and infrastructure.”

“As our country reckons with police violence and begins a massive rethinking of our criminal justice system, we must take seriously the ways we can begin to end our system of mass incarceration. The War on Drugs – and its disproportionate criminalization of Black and brown communities – must end, and SB 73 would repeal one of the era’s worst leftover laws.”

Under current law, if a person has a prior nonviolent drug offense and is convicted of a second offense for drug possession for personal use or similar crime, a judge is prohibited from sentencing them to probation. Judges are also prohibited from sentencing first-time offenders for a number of nonviolent drug charges to probation. SB 73 would give judges sentencing discretion, allowing them to sentence those convicted of these offenses to probation and rehabilitative programs rather than jail time, if appropriate.

Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) and Senator Steven Bradford (D-Los Angeles) are co-authors of SB 73. It is sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance.

“We are grateful to Senator Wiener and Assemblymember Carrillo for leading the fight for greater justice in the State Legislature,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, State Director of Drug Policy Alliance. “Nationally, there is a bipartisan consensus that mandatory minimums are unjust, ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. Glad that California law might finally catching up with that reality.”

“Legislators understand that past policies responsible for mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs, the strain on our state budget, and most importantly, the devastation suffered by families across our state must change,” said Assemblymember Carrillo. “Judges have spoken out against mandatory minimum sentencing, and asked us to untie their hands. Black and Brown families have asked us to close racial disparities. We have listened. We have made probation in cases involving non-violent drug offenses possible. SB 73 is setting us in the right direction.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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