Racial Justice and Drug Policy Reform Groups Win Rare Change Through Legislature 

Sacramento, CA— Today, the California State Assembly passed a bill to repeal sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions by 41 to 25 vote. Senate Bill 180, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and Ricardo Lara of Long Beach, repeals a three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions, including petty drug sales and possession of drugs for sales.

The bill passed the State Senate in June, and now goes to Governor Brown for his signature or veto.

“This was a huge effort, and great thanks to Senators Mitchell and Lara for leading on an issue that is incredibly important to low-income families most impacted by the war on drugs,” said Eunisses Hernandez with the Drug Policy Alliance. “This bill also frees up tax dollars that have long been wasted on lock-em-up policies that had no positive impacts in terms of public health or public safety.”

Current law provides for a penalty of up to five years in jail or prison for sales of even the smallest amount of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.  The enhancements add 3 years for each prior conviction, and according to data from the state sheriffs is a leading cause of sentences of over 10-years in county jail.

Public defenders, drug treatment providers, and racial justice advocates say that current law ensnares low-income and addicted people in overlong and unjust sentences. These penalties fall overwhelmingly on blacks and Latinos, although surveys show that whites use and sell drugs at rates equal to those groups.

The bill leaves base sentences intact, as well as other enhancements such as selling to a minor, or selling to an adult or minor within 1000 feet of a school.

“This sentencing enhancement has been on the books for 35 years and failed to reduce the availability or sales of drugs within our communities,” said Hernandez. “These extreme and punitive polices of the war on drugs break up families and don’t make our communities any safer.”

Sentencing enhancements were meant to reduce the availability of drugs and deter drug selling, however like many drug war policies, they are a proven and costly failure. In addition to depleting state and county funds that could be spent on schools, health, and social services, sentencing enhancements are a major contributor to jail overcrowding. As of 2014, there were more than 1,500 people in California jails sentenced to more than five years and the leading cause of these long sentences was non-violent drug sale offenses.

Although rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. The drug war has devastated families, low-income communities, and communities of color who are disproportionately incarcerated. If signed into law by Governor Brown, the RISE (Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements) Act would help restore balance in the judicial process, address extreme sentences, and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The RISE Act would free up taxpayer dollars for investment in community-based programs and services that improve public safety like mental health and substance use treatment. Advocates applaud the State Assembly’s passage of SB 180 and see the bill as an opportunity for California to demonstrate its commitment to criminal justice policies that prioritize safety instead of punishment.

This bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Drug Policy Alliance, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, California Public Defenders Association, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Friends Committee on Legislation of California.

###