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California Lawmakers Take Aim at Mandatory Minimum Sentences

California judges would have more freedom in determining how to sentence nonviolent drug offenders under a new bill aiming to do away with mandatory minimum prison terms.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California judges would have more freedom in determining how to sentence nonviolent drug offenders under a new bill aiming to do away with mandatory minimum prison terms.

Senate Bill 378 by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, would allow judges to decide whether to send someone to jail or give them probation. Alternatively, judges could order someone to participate in a drug diversion program.

“Judges are actually forced to incarcerate people who would be better be treated and supervised in their own communities under probation,” Carrillo told reporters during a Zoom meeting Monday morning. 

The proposed bill is the same as one Carrillo tried to get passed last year, and her co-author Wiener said the Covid-19 pandemic has made it all the more urgent to reduce the number of people in California prisons and jails.

“Sometimes we have to pursue a bill several times,” he said. "It's taken on a renewed sense of urgency during this Covid-19 pandemic.”

As of last Friday, the California Department of Corrections has reported nearly 7,000 Covid-19 cases throughout the system. The largest outbreak is at San Quentin, which has seen as many as 2,081 cases. There currently are 827 active cases among prison staff. Outbreaks have also spread to county jails like Santa Rita Jail in Dublin east of San Francisco which had 101 infected inmates as of last week.

"We're seeing this spread around our prison system and it shows another huge downside of over incarcerating,” Wiener said. “Let's not mandate incarceration. Let's give judges the ability to pursue a non-incarceration option.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said he agrees.

“It is an unusual thing, I suppose, for me to advocate for a law that would in some ways strip power away from my office,” Boudin said. “Mandatory minimums have been a tremendous power grab by district attorneys from judges and it is high time we recognize that these mandatory minimums and the power they implicate for district attorneys has been abused. It’s led to spiraling incarceration, disproportionate sentencing for people of color and meanwhile, the war on drugs continues to cost the U.S. over $47 billion a year even though we know it is a failure.”

He said judges should have the ability to treat every nonviolent drug case on its own merits. 

Public defenders are predictably in favor of the idea.

“It's time for us to get in the way of a train that's been going in the wrong direction for a while,” San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said, noting people often get sent to prison for possessing “really tiny” amounts of drugs.

“Years ago, a colleague of mine represented a 40-year-old African American woman with a documented history of mental health problems. She was in position of .04 grams of crack,” he said, adding this is the equivalent of a portion of a packet of Sweet n’ Low. “She sold to an officer who was undercover and pretended to be an addict. He said he was willing to pay $20 for a crumb she had just bought for $5. It is not uncommon for people in that situation to be sentenced to prison and be ineligible for housing and other benefits.”

Deputy Public Defender Nick Stewart-Oaten from Los Angeles said current mandatory minimums are excessive and disproportionate. 

“Right now, if I sell a small amount of drugs I'm ineligible for probation. But if I assault somebody I am eligible for probation. It’s this kind of frankly crazy discrepancy between violent and nonviolent that really needs to be addressed if we want anything approaching a sane criminal just system.”

He added that drug sentences, which can range into the double digits depending on the case, cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year. “Every year someone is incarcerated costs California roughly $80,000,” he said.

Stewart-Oaten said the bill will not change the maximum possible sentence for any drug offense. But it allows judges to make individualized sentencing decisions in each circumstance. “This allows a judge to effectively do their job without being bound by a one-size-fits-all mandatory minimums,” he said.

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Categories / Criminal, Law, Regional

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