Capitol Alert

Bill to reduce drug crime sentences fails in California Senate

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, wants to reverse a policy from the War on Drugs that she argues has disproportionately hurt minorities.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, wants to reverse a policy from the War on Drugs that she argues has disproportionately hurt minorities. The Sacramento Bee file

Despite impassioned pleas by supporters to reverse a policy they argue has disproportionately hurt minorities, legislation to repeal sentencing enhancements for certain drug crimes fell short in the California Senate on Monday.

Following a debate over whether it would be a boon to drug dealers, Senate Bill 966 failed on an 18-16 vote, three votes short of a 21-vote majority. Three members of the majority Democratic caucus joined Republicans in opposition and another five abstained.

Under current California law, someone convicted for the sale, possession for sale, distribution or transportation of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and PCP receives an additional three years on their sentence for each prior conviction for one of those crimes.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said her bill sought to address a practice left over from the War on Drugs that has been wielded most harshly against blacks and Latinos, filling up jails while failing to reduce the availability of drugs. She said the ambiguous definition of “possession for sale” has allowed prosecutors wide discretion on who they target for mandatory minimum sentences.

“There should be no double jeopardy,” she said. “If you served your time once for a prior offense, that should be adequate.”

But several Republicans expressed concern that it would embolden drug dealers and make their communities less safe by allowing people out of jail sooner.

“It treats the trafficker exactly as the individual convicted of basically their first offense,” said Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula. “Let’s hold people accountable for their crimes.”

SB 966 was granted reconsideration, and Mitchell said she plans to take it up again. She expressed disappointed that the debate missed her point and focused too much on drug cartels, even though sentencing enhancements for weight and volume would still allow authorities to purse harsher penalties for large-scale traffickers.

“That image and fear is out of step with who is locked up,” she said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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