California Lawmakers Approve Drug Sentencing Reform Bill as Federal Government Seeks to Revive Shameful War on Drugs


For Immediate Release
September 12, 2017

CONTACT: Zaineb Mohammed, (630) 921-1741Zaineb@ellabakercenter.org

California Lawmakers Approve Drug Sentencing Reform Bill as Federal Government Seeks to Revive Shameful War on Drugs

Senate Bill 180, which would repeal sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions, now heads to the governor for final approval.

Sacramento, CA—Four months after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions renewed the federal government’s pursuit of mandatory minimum drug sentences for low-level drug crimes in federal cases, California lawmakers today approved a bill to rein in this type of wasteful, ineffective, and extreme drug war policy at the state level. With a 41 to 25 vote, the California Assembly approved Senate Bill 180, also known as the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements Act (RISE Act). The bill now heads to Governor Brown for final approval.

The RISE Act, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), would repeal California’s three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions. Currently, the base sentence for a person possessing drugs for sale is two to four years in jail. However, if that person has two prior convictions for possession for sale, they would face an additional six years in jail, for a total of ten years.

“By enacting smart and effective legislation like the RISE Act, California has the opportunity to be a leader for the rest of the country in drug sentencing reform” said Zachary Norris, the Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “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.”

If signed into law by Governor Brown, the RISE Act would help restore balance in the judicial process, address extreme sentences, and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. 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.

Sentencing enhancements were meant to reduce the availability of drugs and deter drug selling, however like most other 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 2016, 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.

 “Sentencing enhancements break up families and don’t make our communities any safer,” said Sandra Johnson, a policy fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “These extreme sentences have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable populations—Black and Brown people who have mental health issues, who struggle with addiction, and who are homeless.”

As Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to advance failed Drug War policies and extreme sentencing policies, 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.

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