On October 11, 2017 Governor Brown signed two new laws taking on gun and drug sentencing enhancements in California. Sentencing enhancements are years added automatically to the sentences of people with criminal histories who are convicted of a new crime. Senate Bill 180 eliminates extra jail time for people convicted of minor drug crimes; Senate Bill 620 will allow judges to decide whether extra jail or prison time should be added on if someone uses a gun in a crime. Previously, judges did not have that discretion.
Drug Enhancements Limited
Up until now, if a defendant was arrested for drug sale or possession for sale, under Penal Code section 11370.2 the law required their sentence be enhanced by three years for each previous felony conviction for violating similar laws, even if those convictions did not result in jail time. Senate Bill 180 has changed the law: now this type of enhancement can only be added if the prior conviction was for a violation or conspiracy to violate Health and Safety Code section 11380 (using or employing a minor in the sale or possession for sale). This change will greatly reduce the number of prisoners serving absurdly long prison terms based on “drug enhancements.”
Discretion to Impose Gun Enhancement
Senate Bill 620 allows a judge, in the interest of justice, to “strike” (not apply) a sentence enhancement for using or discharging a firearm when a person is convicted of committing a felony. Currently, California gun enhancement laws are among the most severe sentencing schemes in the nation: if the prosecutor proves that a defendant used a gun during a felony crime, sentencing enhancements under Penal Code sections 12022.5 or 12022.53 can add at least several years or up to 25 years to life to a defendant’s sentence. Judges have not had the power to strike these firearm enhancements, no matter the circumstances, and many inmates are serving extremely long sentences, years over the maximum term for the underlying crime, because of a “gun enhancement.” Now under Senate Bill 620 judges will be allowed to determine whether these extreme enhancements are fair and just in an individual case. If a Judge does not think imposing the extra time required by the enhancement is in the interest of justice, he can decline to impose the enhancement.
These laws go into effect on January 1, 2018. For now, these new laws are not retroactive. This means that if the conviction is final, the new laws do not apply.