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

December 18, 2020

Sacramento - Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) today announced the introduction of SB 73, legislation that would end mandatory 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. The War on Drugs has since been widely acknowledged as a racist policy failure given its foundational role in building the system of mass incarceration that exists in the United States. Current mandatory minimum sentencing requirements deny judges discretion to sentence drug offenders to probation, and they send more people to prison and keep them in prison longer. Mass incarceration and the criminalization of addiction is a public health issue in California. We must work to provide alternatives to incarceration to drug offenders – particularly those struggling with substance use disorder – instead of defaulting to 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 an economic 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 73 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 them to probation. It also bans judges 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.

“The War on Drugs and mass incarceration are policy and public health failures that hurt so many people,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “We are living with the consequences of bad, racist policies enacted in the 1970s and 80s, which disproportionately criminalize and harm Black and brown communities. We need to give discretion back to our courts when it comes to nonviolent drug offenses and ensure that we aren’t unnecessarily incarcerating people who might be better served by probation or treatment for addiction. Our drug laws are a stain on California, and we must stop hurting communities and wasting valuable resources jailing people who have committed nonviolent drug offenses.”

“Today, we see mass incarceration have a massively disproportionate impact on people of color because of unforgiving mandatory minimum sentences passed during the failed War on Drugs,” said Senator Steven Bradford (D-Los Angeles). “Courts should be able to assess the specifics of each case individually. SB 73 will eliminate these mandatory sentences and return the decision-making authority to judges. I look forward to working with Senator Wiener and all stakeholders while we continue to work on undoing the tremendous harm these policies are causing.”

“Mandatory minimums disproportionately affect people of color, many of whom may suffer from a number of pre-existing mental and health conditions,” said Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles). “It is why 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. For these reasons I am proud to co-author SB 73.”

“Communities of color have faced the crisis of mass incarceration for too long,” said Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles). “Whether through Jim Crow laws or the war on drugs, racist policies have flooded our state’s prisons with non-violent offenders. We need major criminal justice reform now, and ending mandatory minimums is an important step in that process.”

“Addiction does not discriminate, and neither should the services in place to help those who are struggling,” said Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, (D-Oakland). “It is our job as legislators to put our weight behind evidence-based solutions that prevent harm to our people and our communities. These programs save lives – and with the COVID-19 pandemic intensifying the overdose crisis across the state, it’s never been more important for us to act swiftly.”

"Mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses – a vestige of the failed War on Drugs – has proved to be a driving force behind mass incarceration,” said Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. “Mandatory minimums are cruel, ineffective, and have exacerbated recidivism and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Though ending mandatory minimums has long been overdue, COVID-19 renders mass incarceration not just a moral and economic crisis, but a public health crisis as well. SB 73 will not only help end mass incarceration, it will save lives as well."

“Allowing judges the discretion to order supervised probation as opposed to jail time is a step in the right direction to address the racial inequities in our criminal justice system,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director for Drug Policy Alliance. “SB 73 is one critical reform that California can take to address mass incarceration, which costs California billions of dollars each year that the state should be investing in schools, infrastructure, healthcare, job training and other critical services to make our communities and economy stronger.”

“When it comes to sentencing, California should not have a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” said retired Contra Costa Judge Harlan Grossman. “Mandatory minimum sentences are not effective in any way, including not being cost effective.  Enacting SB 73 will permit more effective, defendant-based sentencing and more efficient use of California’s criminal justice resources.”