California Policy Lab Reports Key Findings in Analysis of California’s Sentence Enhancements

By Cynthia Hoang-Duong

BERKELEY, CA – The California Policy Lab (CPL) late last week published its findings from an analysis of the data provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) of sentence enhancements and their impacts on California – CPL found there is more incarceration in the state because of enhancements.

In the criminal legal system, sentence enhancements are added to an individual’s sentence that lengthens the term for their conviction based on the characteristics of the crime, explained CPL adding judges and prosecutors have the discretion to use sentence enhancements to add additional time to the individual’s sentence.

Sentence enhancements are prevalent in California’s criminal legal system. The study reported that since 2015, approximately 40 percent of prison admissions included sentence enhancements. And as of 2022, this percentage increases to 70 percent for incarcerated individuals.

Such use of sentence enhancements contributes to the growth of incarceration in California’s prisons because individuals remain in prison for a longer time, CPL found.

Steve Raphel, a professor at UC Berkeley said, “More recent reforms have dialed back the use of enhancements, though they are still applied frequently and affect the sentences of the majority of currently incarcerated individuals.

“Since the 1980s, California has added numerous enhancements to the penal code that have lengthened sentences and increased the state’s prison population,” reported Raphael.

This is corroborated by the CPL’s findings. According to the report, for all admissions, enhancements lengthen the terms of average prison sentences by approximately 1.9 years or 48 percent. And for persons who receive lengthier sentences, the impact is greater.

CPL noted that although California uses more than 100 enhancement types, 80 percent of additional sentence years were the product of the following since 2015: Gang enhancement, the Three-Strikes law for persons with prior violent or serious felony offenses; and firearm enhancements.

For example, although a person receives three years for a second-degree robbery conviction, they may have to serve an additional 10 years if the prosecutor or judge adds an enhancement for the use of a gun during the commission of the crime. The “nickel prior” adds five years for prior serious convictions.

Regarding sex disparities, the researchers concluded that enhancements are added to cases involving men more than women. Further, the report revealed that they primarily impacted the sentences of Black and American Indian individuals, and then sentences for Hispanic, White, and Asian or Pacific Islander persons.

In examining the CDCR’s data, the CPL explained such disparities in the use of enhancements can be attributed to group-based differences in the cases. Such characteristics include the individual’s prior commitments, convictions, most serious offenses, and the country they were sentenced in

Finally, the report found that sentence enhancements vary by California counties. Enhanced sentences primarily impact counties in Northern California, Central Valley, and the Inland Empire. Counties in the Bay Area and coastal Southern California have the lowest enhancement rates, said CPL.

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