Bill takes aim at California’s high rate of life sentences

California has the highest rate of prisoners serving life in the country, but a new bill could change that.

California may have a reputation for being a liberal state, but when it comes to incarceration rates it is anything but lenient. As PBS reports, California has, along with Utah, the highest percentage of state and federal prisoners serving life or virtual life sentences in the country. Furthermore, many of these life sentences are not for homicide or other violent crimes, but for drug offenses and crimes that are eligible for so-called "enhancements." Such enhancements can turn an even minor felony into a virtual life sentence, but a law that was recently passed by the California Legislature and awaiting the governor's signature could change all that.

The 10-20-Life law

With 31 percent of state and federal prisoners in California serving life or virtual life sentences, the state is tied with Utah with the highest percentage of prisoners serving life sentences in the country. Furthermore, California has the most juveniles serving life sentences in the country, at 3,025.

Many of these life sentences are due to sentencing enhancements created by the 10-20-Life law, which was passed in the 90s. The law can add between an extra three years to life without probation for felonies that are committed with a firearm. That means that even minor felonies can result in long sentences that judges have no choice but to impose. In one particularly egregious example, a man in his early twenties was sentenced to 18 years after robbing a video game store with a BB gun. Because the clerk at the store was convinced the BB gun was a real gun, the judge was forced to hand down the 18-year sentence.

Three strikes law

Sentencing enhancements are also often applied to repeat offenders. The three-strikes law, also passed in the 90s, automatically adds 25 years to life for people convicted of a third felony, including for nonviolent felonies.

Fortunately, some of these sentencing enhancements may soon be rolled back. As the East Bay Express reports, California lawmakers recently passed SB180, the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancement Act (RISE Act). If signed by Gov. Brown, the new law would remove three-year sentencing enhancements that are currently applied for each previous conviction of a nonviolent drug offence. As a result, it would give judges more leeway to impose a sentence that better fits the circumstances of the crime. SB180 would not repeal sentencing enhancements in cases involving the selling of drugs near schools or possession of more than 1 kg of a prohibited substance.

Criminal defense law

While moves are being made to undo some of the so-called "tough on crime" laws that have seen thousands of people saddled with disproportionately harsh sentences, the fact remains that California's sentencing laws remain notoriously tough. That's why anybody charged with a criminal offense should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help clients understand what their rights are and help them mount a defense that will give them the best chance of maintaining their freedom.