CA Governor Signs Bill Rolling Back Mandatory Minimums for Some Drug Offenses [FEATURE]

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday signed into law a bill that ends mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug sales offenses, a vestige of harsh drug war policies enacted in the 1980s. The bill, Senate Bill 73, leaves in place upper penalties but now judges will have the discretion to sentence offenders to probation or other alternatives.

The law the bill replaces required not only mandatory minimum sentences for some sales offenses, but also barred judges from granting probation to people with a second drug offense, even for personal possession, and even some people with a first drug offense.

For example, under the old law, people convicted of possession for sale of cocaine, heroin or meth faced a mandatory minimum two-year sentence, and people convicted of transportation for sale of those drugs looked at a mandatory minimum three-year sentence. Offenses such as growing peyote or forging a prescription also triggered mandatory minimums.

"Our prisons and jails are filled with people -- particularly from communities of color -- who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and who would be much better served by non-carceral options like probation, rehabilitation and treatment," said bill sponsor Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) in a statement. "The racist, failed War on Drugs has helped build our system of mass incarceration, and we must dismantle and end its vestiges, which are still in place today. War on Drugs policies are ineffective, inhumane and expensive. SB 73 ends mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and gives judges more options to allow people to stay out of jail. It's an important measure that will help end California's system of mass incarceration."

"Mandatory minimums disproportionately affect people of color, many of whom may suffer from a number of pre-existing mental and health conditions," said bill cosponsor Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles). "It is why 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. For these reasons I am proud to co-author SB 73."

The bill had the backing of a wide coalition of state and national organizations including Drug Policy Alliance, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, California Public Defenders Association, and drug treatment professionals. The only organized opposition came from law enforcement groups and the conservative California family council. It was the third time the legislature has tried to end mandatory minimum for drug offenses in recent years, and the third time was the charm.

"Mandatory drug sentences have been an expensive failure. They've separated families unnecessarily without making our communities any safer. Good riddance," said Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

We are grateful to Senator Wiener and Assembly Member Carrillo for leading the fight to remove this antiquated and cruel policy that has allowed the drug war to tie judges' hands for far too long," said Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Forcing judges to send people to jail when they honestly believe that they and their communities would be better served with probation or other community services is incredibly counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible. We are thankful the legislature and Governor Newsom have realized this and are taking these important steps to set things right in California."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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