California Commission Recommends Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences

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State Capitol in Sacramento
A fence lines the perimeter of the state Capitol building in Sacramento on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A newly formed state commission is recommending that California end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and allow judges to reconsider all criminal sentences after someone has spent 15 years in prison.

Those are two of the 10 recommendations laid out in an 89-page report by the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which is charged with examining California’s criminal sentencing laws and recommending changes.

Among their findings: That the state’s legal system has racial inequality at its core and that many laws are outdated, unsupported by data and don’t make the public more safe.

"We really tried to do a complete survey of punishments in California from driving infractions, all the way to life in prison," said commission Chair Mike Romano, who runs the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford Law School.

"What we found is that California has an unbelievably bloated criminal legal system and that there are a tremendous number of people who are serving punishments that are unnecessary in terms of enhancing public safety, in fact quite the opposite," he said. 

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The group heard from a wide range of experts, including every major law enforcement group in the state, current and former prosecutors and judges and state officials.

The commission learned that California is spending $83,000 a year to lock up each prisoner, for a total of $16 billion. Yet the report also details evidence that California is enjoying the lowest crime rates since statewide tracking began in 1969, even as the state has enacted laws that reduce the number of people incarcerated.

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“Aspects of California’s criminal legal system are undeniably broken," the report states.

“The current system has racial inequity at its core," the commission wrote, adding that inequality may be worse than imagined as "people of color are disproportionately punished under state laws.”

The group is made up of legal experts and two state lawmakers. There are 10 recommendations in its inaugural report — all focusing on changes that could be made by the Legislature, without going to voters. 

Those recommendations are:

  1. Eliminate incarceration and reduce fines and fees for certain traffic offenses
  2. Require that short prison sentences be served in county jails
  3. End mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses
  4. Establish that low-value thefts without serious injury or use of a weapon are misdemeanors
  5. Provide guidance for judges considering sentencing enhancements
  6. Limit gang enhancements to the most dangerous offenses
  7. Retroactively apply sentence enhancements previously repealed by the Legislature
  8. Equalize custody credits for people who committed the same offenses, regardless of where or when they are incarcerated
  9. Clarify parole suitability standards to focus on risk of future violent or serious offenses
  10.  Establish judicial process for "second look" resentencing

The commission will present the findings to the governor and lawmakers for consideration.