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California nixes mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes

California judges will soon be able to ditch decades-old sentencing rules in favor of probation. Backers say it will save the state money and reduce incarceration rates.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California’s era of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes will soon expire under new legislation intended to atone for strict sentencing laws hatched during the height of the war on drugs.

Beginning next year, state judges will be allowed to ditch mandatory sentencing schedules and assign probation, treatment programs or other alternative punishment for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Signed late Tuesday by Governor Gavin Newsom, supporters say Senate Bill 73 will help keep low-level offenders out of California’s notoriously crowded jails and prisons.

State Senator Scott Wiener, SB 73 author, called mandatory minimums a “vestige of the racist, failed war on drugs.”

“Our prisons and jails are filled with people — particularly from communities of color — who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and who would be much better served by non-carceral options like probation, rehabilitation and treatment,” said Wiener, D-San Francisco. “War on drugs policies are ineffective, inhumane and expensive.”

After similar bills stalled in the Legislature in recent years, SB 73 was given a closer look as the state has been scrambling to find ways to lessen the amount of people in prisons and jails due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Proponents argued during legislative hearings and in support letters that the bill won’t change penalties for violent and major drug offenses, but rather will give judges discretion when sentencing someone convicted of possessing or selling minor amounts of drugs. Instead of costly prison sentences, they contend probation sentences could save money and cut down on recidivism rates.  

State judges are currently barred from granting probation — even to first-time offenders — for a laundry list of drug crimes such as possession for sale of a half-ounce of heroin or PCP. These types of drug offenses require mandatory terms ranging from two to seven years.

The laws are even tougher on repeat offenders, as simple possession of a controlled substance for personal use can also result in a mandatory sentence since judges are not allowed to give probation to anyone previously convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.

California’s penal code is getting a badly needed makeover, says the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Forcing judges to send people to jail when they honestly believe that they and their communities would be better served with probation or other community services is incredibly counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible,” said alliance director Jeannette Zanipatin in a statement. “We are thankful the Legislature and Governor Newsom have realized this and are taking these important steps to set things right in California.”   

Other SB 73 supporters included ACLU California Action, the California Public Defenders Association, Prosecutors Alliance California and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Wiener’s proposal cleared both chambers of the Legislature by wide margins but without any support from the minority party. Law enforcement groups also fought the bill, saying it gives judges too much discretion.

“SB 73 sets a dangerous precedent in California court of law and would jeopardize the health and safety of the communities we are sworn to protect,” the California Police Chiefs Association wrote in an opposition letter.

Newsom inked another criminal justice reform that allows people already convicted of voluntary manslaughter or attempted murder that were given life sentences the chance to petition for resentencing. Senate Bill 775 builds on a landmark 2018 bill that limited the state’s so-called “felony murder rule” which critics say wrongly resulted in life sentences for people who didn’t kill or aid and abet a murder.

“My SB 775 closes an unjust loophole and brings greater fairness to our criminal justice system,” said state Senator Josh Becker, D-Peninsula.

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