A new effort in Sacramento hopes to say farewell to California’s drug war-relic mandatory minimum sentences by providing judges with sentencing alternatives other than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

While the debate over mandatory minimum sentencing in California is far from new, State Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) updated version of the effort comes at a time when conversations about criminal justice reform are a top priority for many. Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) and Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) are the co-authors of  the bill, SB-378. Both filed previous versions of the bill with the support of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Champions of SB-378 believe that the current mandatory minimum sentencing requirements have become a serious public health issue. The primary issue being that judges are not given the discretion to sentence drug offenders with something closer to a public health-oriented approach. Also troubling are the long term problems that have arose from decades of bad sentencing, as seen by the wave of COVID-19 infections decimating the state’s corrections system.

As the state scrambles to deal with issues of extreme overcrowding during a pandemic, taking another look at who actually constitutes a threat to society is a great idea. This makes even more sense when you’re talking about those struggling with substance abuse disorders.

“Incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders is the wrong direction for California, and it’s time to repeal these jail and prison mandates,” Senator Wiener said in a statement after introducing the bill, “Mass incarceration is deeply harmful to our state — part of the structural racism afflicting our entire criminal justice system— and we must end it. It makes no sense to force judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders to jail or prison. California’s addiction to over-incarceration tears families and communities apart, doesn’t make us safer, and costs taxpayers dearly. California needs to reduce our jail and prison population and begin closing down prisons. Now is the time to take this step toward decarceration.”

Assemblymember Carrillo spoke to the realities of how mandatory minimum sentencing has barred judges from helping people fix their lives before throwing away the key.

“For too long mandatory minimums have forced judges to impose severe prison sentences to those who would be better treated and supervised in their communities under probation,” she said. “Judges must be able to evaluate crimes and grant probation when it is in the interest of justice, in the interest of public safety, and is consistent with the values of our communities. SB 378 is a step in the right direction to continue the national discussion around judicial independence, over-sentencing, and mass incarceration.”

Carrillo sent L.A. Weekly a statement on this year’s bill and her past efforts:

“Last year, I introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 607, which would have allowed judges to order probation supervision and services for specified nonviolent drug offenses that currently require incarceration. Unfortunately, this bill was as held in the Senate Committee on Appropriations and did not have an opportunity to move forward. I commend my colleague, Senator Wiener, for continuing this effort this year through Senate Bill (SB) 378, which I am proud to co-author. This bill enables the national discussion around judicial independence, over-sentencing, and mass incarceration during such a historical point in time.”

Carillo went on to describe the term “disproportionate” as an understatement when it comes to describing what’s really happening in communities of color when any laws are being enforced. She noted that in 2018, the imprisonment rate for Latino men was 1,016 per 100,000 people and for African American men it was 4,236 per 100,000 people. “There is an overwhelming bipartisan consensus that mandatory minimums for drug offenses need to be repealed or greatly amended,” she said.

The Assemblymember thinks there is a lot of conversation around dismantling institutional racism, “but it’s quite another [thing] to actually execute it.” In her letter, Carillo also told us she was proud of her office’s work on other issues related to racial inequality in the criminal justice system, like tackling the issue of child support for individuals who are incarcerated and AB 3052. The second effort would have rightfully compensated people who were involuntarily sterilized under California’s previous eugenics law and in women’s state prisons after 1979.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums has worked to reform bad sentencing policies for nearly 30 years. FAMM’s Executive Director Kevin Ring spoke with L.A. Weekly about California’s latest push to get nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of a prison sentence. He spoke to the new COVID-19 aspect of the debate as the first of two factors.

“The idea that it’s really making us think about who needs to be in prison or jail,” Ring said, “Who do we reserve this expensive space for? Because it’s not free. And there are costs not just to taxpayers, but to public safety and health by overcrowding prisons and jails with people. We see that now.”

Ring pointed out the next big factor is racial justice, a phrase that’s been in FAMM’s vocabulary a lot longer than most due to how heavily impacted communities of color have been by the mandatory minimums they fight against. But progress is being made now more than ever.

“More Americans than ever identify or recognize racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” Ring said of recent polling, “I think that that’s another factor that is boosting an effort like this.”

When people think of the effort to reform mandatory minimums over the year, much of the time they see the disparity around crack and powder cocaine sentencing. But growing too much cannabis and or possessing various other less culturally acceptable substances will get you in hot water too. Does Ring think it’s more of a layered issue when it came to racial inequality than any one substance?

“Yes,” he quickly replied pointing to the dynamics of Latinos and methamphetamine as another example of where the sentencing skewed towards a certain racial demographic. “But it’s not about the drug of choice, it’s about how we police drug use. Because some communities are policed heavily for other reasons, drug dealing, drug possession, and drug use get overpoliced in those communities. We know drug use among Whites and Blacks are the same, but obviously some get hit harder with the hand of the law.”

Ring said certain kinds of heavy policing in neighborhoods create disparities even if it’s not the target of policing. So regardless of whether you have a precinct full of definitely-not-racist cops, the enforcement in that area, by design, would contribute to a certain community getting arrested more for something they are doing at the same rate as other groups.

We asked how responsible the war on drugs is for a lot of the sentencing disparities we see. “Well, a good portion of it because we have mandatory minimums for all sorts of crimes. They mostly haul in drugs, guns, and then habitual offenders. So drugs are a big part of that,” Ring replied. “What people don’t realize is, you don’t have to serve a mandatory minimum for the mandatory minimums to skew the system right, it just, it bludgeons people into longer plea deals it distorts the whole process.

Ring says just giving prosecutors that position of power to negotiate from has a big impact on the fairness of the process as a whole.

Jeannette Zanipatin, The Drug Policy Alliance’s California State Director, spoke to the previous efforts to pass the bill.

“This is our third bite at the apple for whatever reason,” Zanipatin told L.A. Weekly, “This bill has fallen casualty to end of session politicking not because there wasn’t support for the bill. I think this bill has always sailed through the legislature. So given this moment, this time, when we are really looking at racial inequities within the carceral system and looking at issues of mass incarceration.”

Zanipatin believes in addition to fighting back the deep racism embedded in sentencing, “We really do not need to be adding to incarcerating more individuals and ensuring that we could stop the spread of this pandemic right now and so there’s so many good things about the bill.”

One big question that remains is if it will be harder for police unions to push back against the bill given the current state of the national criminal justice conversation.

“I do anticipate that they will likely oppose, strongly oppose a measure like this. But I do think that the tenor of this debate has shifted. It’s really hard to be supportive of measures that we know. lead to the incarceration of black and brown communities,” she said, “I mean I think it’s really hard to say I support this because we know that the end result is going to be what we’ve been seeing over and over again. I think folks have an appetite for a change. And even though it’s a small change, I think it’s an important incremental change that California needs to take.”

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