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California drops mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders

With the swipe of a pen Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that will finally eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.   

Senate Bill 73, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, is the latest legislative effort to end the state’s mass incarceration problem, which ballooned during the failed War on Drugs in the 80s and 90s. 

A nearly identical bill authored by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) failed in 2019.

State lawmakers passed SB 73 in September and it was sent to the governor’s desk for final approval. The new law, effective Jan. 1, not only ends mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders but empowers judges to offer alternatives to incarceration, including probation, sentence suspension and substance abuse treatment programs. 

In September, Wiener said:

“If we are serious about ending the War on Drugs, which has been a racist policy failure, then we must start by expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who commit nonviolent drug offenses.” 

The senator added:

“It’s simple: Judges should not be forced to send someone to jail if they think non-carceral options are more fitting. SB 73 is an important criminal justice reform bill that will remove another harmful vestige of the War on Drugs era – mandatory minimum jail time for nonviolent drug offenses.”

According to Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, California’s 2021 incarceration rate — including people in prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities — is 549 per 100,000 people. While the state incarceration rate falls below what’s reported nationally, it is more than four times the rate reported in the entire United Kingdom.

The Public Policy Institute of California said that in 2017, Black men represented 28.5 percent of the state prison population but made up less than 6 percent of the state’s total adult male population. The incarceration rate among just Latino men that year was 1,016 per 100,000 people. 

Wiener hopes the new law will help correct glaring racial disparities in sentencing. He said:

“The War on Drugs has since been widely acknowledged as a racist policy failure—costing huge amounts of money while tearing apart communities and not making us safer.” 

The legislation’s co-authors include Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, David Chiu, D-San Francisco, Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland and Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Los Angeles.

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