Sacramento, CA – California lawmakers are working to change the maximum term of imprisonment for felony convictions to prevent longer sentences for repeat offenses.
Law enforcement groups are fighting back, and have pointed out that the proposed legislation imposes an arbitrary cap on sentencing, which takes away a judge’s ability to sentence criminals appropriately for their crimes, The Sacramento Bee reported.
California State Senator Steven Bradford, a Democrat who represents Gardena, sponsored Senate Bill 1279 (SB1279) because he said he felt decades of a “tough on crime” mentality had devastated communities of color and needed to be revised.
“Until we can prove that longer sentences are an effective deterrent to crime and increase public safety, there is absolutely no reason we should dole out extreme and harsh sentences for all cases, which research has widely proven to disproportionately impact black and brown people,” Bradford said.
The proposed bill would effectively stop extra sentencing after the first two offenses for somebody who commits repeated crimes before being sentenced.
But Republican State Senator Jeff Stone, who represents southwest Riverside County, called Bradford out for during the state senate’s debate of the bill in open session on May 30.
“This continues the trend in California in releasing dangerous criminals, and basically taking away from judges the ability to provide enhancements,” Stone said.
He pointed out that SB1279 basically takes away consequences for committing additional crimes.
“If you have somebody that’s been accused and convicted of multiple armed robberies, there would be no sentence enhancements for these very dangerous individuals that go back into the community and maybe next time when they do an armed robbery, it’s not going to be armed robbery, it’s going to be murder.”
California District Attorneys Association Director of Legislation Sean Hoffman told The Sacramento Bee that the case of the two men charged with the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland was a perfect example of why the limited sentencing wouldn’t work.
Both men are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and are set to go to trial in 2019 because a judge rejected a plea deal that would have sentenced them to only nine years and six years, respectively, Hoffman said.
The two defendants are facing up to 39 years in state prison if they are convicted of all 36 charges - a maximum term of four years for the principal offense, and one additional year, or a third of the middle term for involuntary manslaughter, for each of the remaining 35 charges, he told The Sacramento Bee.
Hoffman said that under the new law proposed by SB1279, the judge would be limited to sentencing each of the men to eight years.
“At some point, you will have certain crimes that go unpunished or certain victims who don’t receive justice,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California is one of SB1279’s major supporters, and their legislative counsel Mica Doctoroff disagreed with Hoffman’s assessment.
“People will still be held accountable. This is not a bill that is having anybody escape the criminal justice system,” Doctoroff told The Sacramento Bee.
He said sentencing “doesn’t follow a strategic path” and claimed there was no proof that stiffer sentences were a more effective tool to deter crime.
There are some exceptions to the new sentencing guidelines proposed by SB1279, The Sacramento Bee reported.
The proposed law does include exceptions for gang enhancements, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault of a child, inflicting an injury that results in the loss of a pregnancy, and prior convictions for serious or violent felonies.
The Sacramento Bee reported that SB1279 also does not affect judges’ sentencing determinations for crimes that carry indeterminate sentences, such as first- and second-degree murder. Judges will still have discretion for crimes which carry a time range rather than a specific duration in prison.
It’s worth noting that California passed similar sentencing caps in 1976, but they were repealed in 1997 after numerous exceptions had been added to the law, according to The Sacramento Bee.