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For decades, California had the largest prison system of all U.S. states. However, in more recent years, sociological and scientific research indicated that the effects of mass incarceration can do much more harm than good. For example, a 2019 study conducted by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that the average annual cost to incarcerate one person exceeds $80,000. Of course, ending mass incarceration not only provides economic and societal benefits but is also the right thing to do from a human rights perspective.

California lawmakers have been on the forefront of criminal justice reform. Most recently, California Governor, Gavin Newsome, announced a policy by which 76,000 inmates will become eligible for early release. The measure is designed to incentivize good conduct while incarcerated, allowing inmates to more easily use early release credits to get out of jail. More specifically, under the new rule, an inmate can use good behavior credits to shorten their sentence by up to one-third. Previously, there most a sentence could be reduced was one-fifth.

Unlike many other criminal justice reform measures, this new rule applies broadly to inmates convicted of all types of offenses, including those convicted of violent crimes. According to a recent report by the Associated Press, 63,000 of the inmates who will become eligible for earlier release are serving time for a violent offense. The new rule will also allow approximately 20,000 inmates currently serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole to qualify for early release. In part, the reason why this figure is so high is that other criminal justice reform measures have overlooked this population.

In recent years, there has been widespread recognition of the harms that come from over incarceration. Whether it be due to improper policing or overly punitive sentencing schemes, the current criminal justice system does not strike a fair balance between protecting society from harm and focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders. California lawmakers are among the first to implement significant policy changes to address these concerns.

Over the past few years, California has implemented a slew of criminal justice reforms designed to fix what many are finally recognizing is a broken system. Below are a few of the most notable reform policies.

Special Directives

Recently, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County, George Gascon, issued a set of “special directives” focused on creating a fairer criminal justice system. The special directives are broad in scope and address a wide range of problems with the current system. For example, the special directives address pre-trial incarceration, police misconduct, sentencing enhancement, youthful offenders, and established a “conviction integrity unit” that provides for the review of previously obtained convictions.

AB 1509

Gun crimes bring along some of the most significant penalties, even for mere possession of a firearm. Part of the problem when it comes to the inequities of gun sentencing laws stems from duplicative punishment. For example, under the current system, a person found guilty of using a gun during the commission of a crime would face punishment for the underlying crime, possession or use of the gun, as well as a sentencing enhancement for having or using a gun while committing a crime. Recently California lawmakers proposed AB 1509, which would drastically reduce sentencing enhancements for gun crimes.

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Earlier this year, Assembly Member Alex Lee (D-San Jose) introduced AB 1509, named the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act. If passed, the bill would drastically reduce the sentencing enhancements courts use to sentence those convicted of having a gun in their possession when they committed the underlying offense. Lee explains that the practical effect of the current sentencing enhancement laws has a disproportionate impact on People of Color, noting that 89 percent of those incarcerated based on these enhancements are People of Color.

How Do Sentencing Enhancements Work?

A sentencing enhancement is an increase in the maximum allowable punishment that is based on a certain fact. In the case of gun-sentencing enhancements, a person convicted of certain crimes will face a significantly longer sentence because they carried a gun when they committed the offense. However, sentencing enhancements are duplicative and unnecessary, as the law allows for a person who has a gun when committing another offense to be charged with the underlying offense as well as for possession of a gun. In other words, under the current state of the law, if you were to commit a robbery while carrying a gun, you would face robbery charges, gun charges, as well as a sentencing enhancement.

How Would AB 1509 Change Gun-Sentencing Enhancements?

If AB 1509 passes, it would significantly reduce—although not eliminate—the sentencing enhancements for those convicted of certain crimes while carrying or using a gun. For example, under the current framework, the sentencing enhancements are as follows:

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