Senator Wiener Introduces New Legislation to End Mandatory Jail and Prison Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Offenders

SB 378 Would Help Reduce Mass Incarceration Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic
July 21, 2020

Sacramento - Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) today announced the introduction of SB 378, legislation that would end mandatory jail and prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. This would repeal state law established during the height of the War on Drugs era in 1986, which enacted these mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The War on Drugs has since been widely acknowledged as failed racist policy, and its vestiges must be dismantled. 

Current mandatory minimum sentencing requirements deny judges discretion to sentence drug offenders to probation in their communities, and they contribute to mass incarceration. Right now, as our jails and prisons see massive spikes in COVID-19 cases, we need to do everything we can to reduce our incarcerated population. Mass incarceration is a public health issue in California, and in the short and long term, we must work to offer non-incarceration options to drug offenders – particularly those struggling with substance use disorder – instead of defaulting to prison or jail time. 

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 a potentially catastrophic recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown. Mass incarceration costs our state unnecessary billions that should be going to things like schools, healthcare, and infrastructure.

As our country reckons with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, 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 378 would repeal one of the era’s worst leftover laws.

Currently, if a prior drug offender is convicted of a second offense for something such as drug possession for personal use, a judge is not allowed to sentence this person to probation. Current law also bans judges from sentencing first-time offenders for a number of nonviolent drug charges to probation. SB 378 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.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) have introduced previous versions of this bill in past years, and will co-author SB 378. It is sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Incarcerating non-violent drug offenders is the wrong direction for California, and it’s time repeal these jail and prison mandates,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “Mass incarceration is deeply harmful to our state — part of the structural racism afflicting our entire criminal justice system— and we must end it. It makes no sense to force judges to sentence non-violent drug offenders to jail or prison. California’s addiction to over-incarceration tears families and communities apart, doesn’t make us safer, and costs taxpayers dearly. California need to reduce our jail and prison population and begin closing down prisons. Now is the time to take this step toward decarceration.”

“For too long mandatory minimums have forced judges to impose severe prison sentences to those who would be better treated and supervised in their communities under probation,” said Assembly Member Wendy Carrillo. “Judges must be able to evaluate crimes and grant probation when it is in the interest of justice, in the interest of public safety, and is consistent with the values of our communities. SB 378 is a step in the right direction to continue the national discussion around judicial independence, over-sentencing, and mass incarceration.”

“Mandatory minimums have been a significant contributor to mass incarceration and have not made the public any safer,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “This bill ensures that judges aren’t hamstrung in nonviolent drug cases and can exercise their discretion to determine an appropriate sentence in each case.”

“It’s bad public policy to send people to prison for several years for selling the equivalent of 1/4 of a sugar packet of drugs,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “What we have under mandatory sentencing policies are judges who are unable to make the very decisions we pay them to make. SB 378 will help to restore the discretion of judges and make it possible to shift resources to more treatment and support for people struggling with addiction.”

“Mandatory minimums are a remnant of the failed, costly and racist War on Drugs,” said Glenn Backes, policy consultant for Drug Policy Alliance. “Current law ties the hands of judges, they are powerless. This bill gives the judge the authority to order probation services and supervision, when it makes sense given, local norms and local resources."