Op-Ed: Michelle Alexander: Sentence ‘enhancement’ for drug offenders is a tool of community destruction

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif.

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Ten years ago in Los Angeles, Theresa Martinez was finally making progress in her long, painful struggle against drug addiction and the cycle of incarceration it fueled. But in order to continue her methadone program, she needed $200. Homeless, unemployed, and terrified of falling back into heroin addiction, she tried to get the money the only way she knew: selling drugs.

Martinez was arrested for a $5 sale of cocaine, a felony that, absent aggravating factors, carried a three-year prison sentence. By global standards that penalty would have been unusual and harsh, especially since she plainly needed help and support — not incarceration. But here in the United States, Martinez faced an even worse fate. California law prescribes sentencing “enhancements” for anyone who has a prior drug-related felony conviction. Martinez was threatened with a nine-year sentence. Anguished, she took a plea deal for six years, bringing her lifetime total to 23 years behind bars, all for drugs.

The sentence enhancement that doubled, and could have tripled Martinez’s third time behind bars is a brutal tool of the ineffective war on drugs, a war that has been waged primarily against poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that rates of illegal drug use and sales are similar across racial lines.


California now has an opportunity to close down one front in this war. Senate Bill 966, authored by Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would repeal the three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions. Sentence enhancements like these were marketed as deterrents to drug use and sales, supposedly out of concern for the harm drugs cause people. But drastic sentences impede rehabilitation and treatment and worsen the odds of successful reintegration.

There is no evidence that enhanced sentences reduce drug availability or the number of people harmed by illicit drug use. After decades of the war on drugs, it is clear that purely punitive approaches to drug crime are counterproductive. Drug use has not declined, controlled substances are now cheaper and more widely available than ever before, and the death rate from drug overdoses continues to rise.

There is no evidence that enhanced sentences reduce drug availability or the number of people harmed by illicit drug use

Here in California, thousands of families have been broken apart and communities throughout the state have been destabilized. Instead of helping those targeted by the war on drugs, we have sentenced them not just to prison but to the lifetime of discrimination and stigma that follows it.

It is no secret that the war on drugs has had a grossly disproportionate impact on people who are black, brown and poor. People of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug violations than are whites, who can typically commit the same acts in upper- and middle-class neighborhoods without criminal consequences. Sentence enhancements based on prior drug convictions magnify these disparities, falling on those who have been unable to successfully re-integrate into society after earlier prison sentences.

Labor unions, healthcare providers, and more than 125 other organizations support SB 966. It has been met with resistance primarily from law enforcement, including district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs.


In its first vote in the California Senate April 25, the bill’s opponents resorted to racially coded fear-mongering about “perpetually arrested drug dealers.” The bill fell three votes short of a majority, with senators voting primarily along party lines — with the exception of three Democrats who joined Republicans in opposing the bill. Five other Democrats abstained.

SB 966 could be brought back for another vote this week. It deserves to be passed by the Senate, moved to the Assembly and passed there as well. The state’s lawmakers can stop the unnecessary suffering caused by sentence enhancements.

After Theresa Martinez served her sentence, she was homeless for two years, moving between shelters, her husband’s truck and the homes of various friends. Her drug convictions made her ineligible for help from CalFresh and CalWORKS, the state’s food stamp and family aid programs, until the ban was lifted a year ago. Now she is getting back on her feet and is trying to build her life — minus 23 years of incarceration.

Automatically adding years to a drug sentence is a weapon of individual and community destruction disguised as an expression of concern. Passing SB 966 is an important step in the state’s belated journey toward justice and healing in our communities.

Michelle Alexander is the former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. She is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

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