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California SB 81 Seeks to Abolish Sentence Enhancements

by Lindsay Chambers

California’s penal code allows judges to add sentence enhancements to a criminal charge. Sentence enhancements are not elements of the original crime; they are additional circumstances that increase the penalty. For example, using a firearm while committing a violent felony can add between 10 and 25 years. Meanwhile, a possible gang association could result in two to 10 additional years, depending upon the offense’s severity.

Like many other aspects of the criminal justice system, the current sentencing enhancement laws unfairly affect mentally ill inmates and people of color, who are already overrepresented in California prisons and jails. In some cases, sentence enhancements have also worsened the issue of prison overcrowding, which remains a significant threat to inmate health despite the fact that California’s prison population has dramatically declined within the past year.

Now, some California lawmakers are seeking to eliminate or drastically restrict the use of sentencing enhancements, arguing that their use is out of control. The current laws lack clarity on when and how to employ enhancements, which has led to inconsistencies and arbitrary applications.

What Is a Sentence Enhancement?

A sentence enhancement is essentially an add-on to an existing punishment. Under California’s penal code, there are more than 150 separate sentence enhancements, which can add years to a person’s prison term. However, recently proposed legislation posits that many of these enhancements are disproportionate to the offense committed, and do not serve their stated purpose of protecting the public.

Earlier this year, State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced California SB 81, which would direct judges to avoid sentencing enhancements related to:

  • Juvenile crimes
  • Nonviolent crimes that did not involve a loaded or working gun
  • Prior convictions older than five years
  • Convictions stemming from mental health disorders

The bill also discourages enhancements in circumstances where a person’s total prison sentence is already more than 20 years, and those in which a sentencing enhancement would result in a “disparate racial impact.” If passed, SB 81 would allow California to join at least a dozen other states that have modernized their use of enhancements to ensure the punishment more appropriately fits the crime.

Get Relief From a Sentencing Enhancement

California’s penal code continues to evolve, providing more avenues for people to have lengthy sentences reduced. Many new laws considerably reduce prison sentences and fines, and some of these are retroactive. If someone you care about is currently serving an extended prison term based on a sentence enhancement, you need an expert attorney to help apply new legal developments on your loved one’s behalf.

Ronald G. Brower has served clients in Southern California for more than 45 years. During that time, he has earned a reputation for his unwavering dedication to obtaining justice for his clients. He has successfully defended some of the highest-profile cases and gotten results. To learn more about securing reliable representation, contact us today.

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