Senate Passes Senator Wiener’s Criminal Justice Reform Legislation to Repeal Unnecessary One-Year Enhancements on Sentences

May 28, 2019

Sacramento –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener’s (D- San Francisco) legislation to repeal a one-year sentence enhancement that is added to an individual’s base sentence for each prior prison or felony jail term served passed the Senate with a 21-11 vote. SB 136 will now head to the Assembly for committee hearings in the coming weeks.

The enhancement addressed by the bill impacts about one-third of people serving time in California prisons. Because each year of incarceration costs approximately $80,000, this enhancement is therefore extremely expensive to taxpayers. The one-year enhancement accomplishes very little, since there are many other enhancements under California law, particularly for violent crime.

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 one-year enhancement is also irrational. It only applies if the individual served time in prison or jail for the previous felony. It does not apply if the prior felony resulted in probation only. This distinction makes no sense and creates major inequities.    

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.”

According to CDCR, as of December 2018 there were over 15,000 counts of this particular enhancement added to sentences of incarcerated individuals.  This is a conservative estimate, as it does not take into account local county jail sentences impacted by the one-year enhancement.  California currently spends over $80,000 each year to imprison an individual. These sentence enhancements are thus very expensive, harm state and local budgets, and shift dollars away from desperately needed community services.     

“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.

SB 136 is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Pillars of the Community, and Tides Advocacy. Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) is the principal co-author on the legislation, and it is co-authored by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), and Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), Sharon Quirk (D-Fullerton), and Shirley Weber (D-San Diego).

Full text of the bill can be found here.