California eases gang enhanced sentence rules

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday approved limiting prison terms for those associated with street gangs, among several criminal justice bills restricting enhancements that can add years to offenders’ sentences.

In doing so he followed recommendations from an advisory committee the most populous state created last year to continue reducing criminal penalties in the latest attempt to relax tough-on-crime policies that jammed prisons to the bursting point just a decade ago.

Newsom, a Democrat who last month defeated an effort to recall him in midterm, approved a bill limiting gang enhancements to organized, violent criminal enterprises.

The California Police Chiefs Association said the bill is unworkable because it can require prosecutors to first prove the underlying crime without telling jurors that it was gang-motivated.

That bill was proposed by Democratic Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager, one of several lawmakers who sat on the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code that lawmakers created last year.

"Gang enhancements have long been used against people of color far more frequently than their white counterparts," Kamlager said.

Sentencing enhancements can add years to prison terms and are imposed with "extreme racial disparities," the committee said in February. For instance, it found that 99% of those given a gang enhancement in Los Angeles County are people of color.

The committee is made up of current and former lawmakers, judges and academics, and led by Michael Romano. He separately directs Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, which helped persuade California voters to ease a three-strikes law that was considered the nation’s toughest law targeting repeat offenders.

Romano said the committee "is committed to improving public safety for all Californians while reducing unnecessary incarceration and inequity in the criminal legal system."

A second bill signed by the governor also was proposed by the seven-member committee and carried by another committee member, Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner.

It requires judges to give "great weight" to mitigating circumstances that favor dismissing enhancements that can greatly extend the length of prison sentences, unless doing so would endanger public safety. Skinner said enhancements are much more likely to be imposed on Black suspects.

The bill "sends a clear message to our courts: Let’s use sentence enhancements judiciously and only when necessary to protect the public," Skinner said.

But the California District Attorneys Association argued that "defendants should be held accountable if they engage in aggravated conduct during the commission of a crime, particularly if it results in added trauma or injury to a victim.

The prosecutors added that judges "should be given discretion and flexibility in determining whether to impose or dismiss an enhancement, something judges currently have under existing law."

The governor also approved a bill to retroactively remove enhancements that required an extra year in prison or jail for repeat offenders and an additional three years for certain prior drug crimes. Lawmakers previously eliminated the enhancements without removing them from existing sentences.

Earlier this week the governor also signed two other measures supported by the advisory committee.

One ends mandatory minimum prison or jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses while giving judges more discretion to impose probation or other alternative sentences.

The second makes good behavior credits available to those who are in a mental health treatment facility.

Several other of the committee’s recommendations failed to gain legislative traction this year.

The recommended bills were among criminal justice measures signed by the governor.

They include one that enshrines court rulings that say judges must impose the middle of three possible sentences allowed by law unless there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances. That bill says the aggravating circumstances must be admitted by the suspect or found true beyond a reasonable doubt by a judge or jury.

He also approved another Kamlager bill a year after vetoing her first attempt. The measure, which already has $10 million set aside in the state budget, will start a grant program to support community-based alternatives to police response during emergency calls.