Governor signs Nancy Skinner bill to create judicial guidelines on improved sentencing

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 81, an act from Senator Nancy Skinner that provides guidance to judges on the use of sentence enhancements. SB 81 is designed to combat the proliferation of sentence enhancements, which can often double the length of a prison sentence and have been applied disproportionately to people of color and people with mental illness.

SB 81 stems from recommendations made earlier this year by the California Penal Code Review Committee. The committee, of which Senator Skinner is a member, was appointed by Gov. Newsom and the legislature to thoroughly review California’s penal code and make recommendations for reform.

“SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: use sentencing enhancements wisely and only when necessary to protect the public,” said Senator Skinner, D-Berkeley. “With SB 81, we can begin to reverse a marked racial disparity in sentencing practices in California. Black Californians, in particular, have been disproportionately targeted with improvements that double the time they have to spend in jail. “

“I am deeply grateful to Senator Skinner for drafting and Governor Newsom for signing SB 81,” said Michael Romano, chairman of the Criminal Code Review Commission. “The committee is committed to improving public safety for all Californians while reducing unnecessary incarceration and inequalities in the criminal justice system. SB 81 is an important step towards these goals.

“Unnecessary sentencing improvements do nothing to prevent crime and harm in the first place, nor do they help protect the safety and well-being of our communities,” said Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a sponsor of SB 81. “Californians from all walks of life continue to demand that the justice system prioritize prevention over harsh sentences and ineffective incarceration, and Governor Gavin Newsom should be commended for signing SB 81, which reflects what voters want and is consistent with what science and data show these are the best approaches to improving public safety.

SB 81 was approved by the California State Senate on September 9 on a 23-11 vote, after the State Assembly approved it 46-24. SB 81 comes into force on January 1, 2022. Its provisions are not retroactive.

Currently, there are now over 150 sentence enhancements in the California Penal Code. Sentencing increases are not elements of a crime; rather, they are additional circumstances that increase the sentence, or time spent, of the underlying crime.

In a hearing last year before the Criminal Code Review Board, the ex-governor. Jerry Brown argued that California’s use of sentencing enhancements has become free and that the state should “get rid of all enhancements” or urge judges not to impose them. Evidence before the committee also showed no evidence that the sentencing improvements improved public safety.

Judges currently have the power to reject sentence enhancements, but rarely do so, in part because California law does not provide clear guidelines. SB 81 sets guidelines when a judge decides to reject an improvement by requiring judges to give “great weight” to evidence that proves certain mitigating circumstances, such as:

  • The underlying conviction is not a violent crime
  • Applying the improvement would have a discriminatory racial impact
  • The underlying conviction relates to mental illness, previous victimization or childhood trauma
  • The improvement is based on a previous conviction of more than five years
  • The above circumstances would not be taken into account if a judge concluded that the rejection of the improvement would endanger public safety.

Senator Nancy Skinner represents the 9th Senate District and is Chair of the Senate Budget Committee and Deputy Chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.

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