East Bay State Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced two criminal justice reform bills this week, designed to reduce sentences for several categories of non-violent felonies.
Skinner’s two bills were introduced in response to a new report from the state’s Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code. The committee, of which Skinner is a member, was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to comprehensively examine California’s Penal Code and issue recommendations for reforming it.
The first bill, SB 81, would reform the state’s use of sentencing enhancements, which add years to prison sentences,but, based on widespread research, fail to improve public safety. SB 81 would create a set of guidelines for courts so that sentence enhancements would no longer be applied to nonviolent offenses and certain other cases unless a judge determines that the enhancements are necessary to protect public safety.
The other bill, SB 82, would update a 150-year-old statute that has allowed prosecutors to elevate a petty theft charge into felony robbery. SB 82 would establish a clear distinction between theft and robbery for cases when no deadly weapon was used and no one was seriously injured.
“Serving on the Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code gave me the opportunity to engage with experts and advocates to identify common sense proposals for criminal justice reform.” Skinner said. “SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: Sentence enhancements should be used judiciously, and only when the enhancement is necessary to protect the public. And SB 82 will help ensure that in the case of theft, the punishment meets the crime.”
The vast majority of people in California prisons — 80% — are serving a sentence term that includes extra time added on by a sentencing enhancement. In some cases, the amount of prison time added due to sentencing enhancements is five to 10 years or more — longer than the term for the underlying conviction. The committee’s report also noted that “enhancements are applied disproportionately against people of color and people suffering from mental illness.”
Research reviewed by the Penal Code Revision Committee showed no evidence that the proliferation of sentencing enhancements in California has made the state safer.