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California Legislature

California state Senate advances bill to repeal mandatory sentence enhancements for some drug convictions

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The state Senate on Monday approved a bill that would repeal three-year mandatory sentence enhancements for some prior drug convictions, part of a reform package that lawmakers say would protect juveniles and create parity in the justice system.

Senate Bill 180, co-authored by Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), narrowly moved out of the Senate on a 22-13 vote. It now heads to the Assembly for consideration.

Another bill in the package, Senate Bill 439, passed on a 23-13 vote and would prohibit authorities from incarcerating children 11 and younger. 

On the Senate floor, Republican lawmakers urged their Democratic colleagues not to water down state sentencing laws, pointing to the deadly attack on Whittier police officers allegedly carried out by a paroled gang member.

But supporters of the legislation called it a modest reversal of harmful policy under the so-called war on drugs, which they said disproportionately targeted minorities and did not stop the flow of narcotics. And they cited concerns over the direction on drug crimes taken by U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who last week told federal prosecutors to pursue "the most serious, readily provable offense" in drug cases

Under current state law in California, a person convicted for sale or possession for sale of a small amount of drugs can face a sentence of three to five years incarceration, plus an additional three years in jail for each prior conviction for similar drug offenses. 

Mitchell said research showed long prison sentences because of such mandatory enhancements tear apart families and do not stop offenders from breaking the law.

“Enhancements came around at a time when we didn’t have the research to show that they aren’t effective, and [they] were based on fear,” she told lawmakers. “When you know better, you’re supposed to do better.”

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