June 25, 2017: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE EDITORIAL - California must embrace sentencing reform

June 25, 2017

We’ve learned that sentencing enhancements may sound good, and they make the public feel safer, but they don’t actually work.

The last time the U.S. was facing a terrible drug epidemic that was wreaking havoc on communities, some states, including California, instituted a series of extra punishments and longer jail sentences for chronic drug offenders.

California’s three-year sentencing enhancement for drug offenders with prior convictions for possession, possession with the intent to sell, or similar offenses dates to 1985 — the days of the crack epidemic.

Since those days, we’ve learned far more about how drug addiction works.

We’ve also learned, from policy experts and criminal justice reformers, that sentencing enhancements may sound good, and they make the public feel safer, but they don’t actually work.

Addiction can be a long and cyclical process requiring treatment — especially if the underlying reasons for the addiction have to deal with other problems, like mental illness.

Meanwhile, harsh jail terms have been incredibly expensive for taxpayers, and they’ve eroded the prospects and stability of our communities.

With the country — and California — facing another drug epidemic in the form of opioids, it’s long past time to repeal the three-year sentencing enhancement for prior convictions.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, has a bill, SB180, to do that.

The idea isn’t to give drug traffickers a slap on the wrist. Offenders will still be subject to base sentences.

Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of what public defenders have testified to in legislative committees, and what community organizations have found in their work: The people who are most vulnerable to the harshest sentences are those suffering from not just drug addiction but also conditions like homelessness and mental illness.

In recent years, California voters have consistently signaled their preference for drug offenders to receive treatment options rather than harsh, expensive jail terms.

Still, the passage of SB180 is no sure thing.

Mitchell, who co-authored SB180 with state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County), has been down this road before.

Last year, she sponsored a similar measure, SB966. It failed to pass.

SB180, too, is opposed by some law enforcement groups, and some state legislators will still be hesitant to change a failed policy.

Yet there’s little evidence that these kinds of sentencing enhancements have made communities safer.

Over the past several years, California has committed itself to smart criminal justice reforms. SB180 is the next step.

Link to original editorial HERE: