Two California bills would reform sentencing enhancements, define petty theft more clearly

A California senator announced on Tuesday two criminal justice reform bills as part of a state panel recommendation to reform aspects of the criminal justice system. 

The state panel, which is made up of current and former lawmakers, judges and academics and is headed by Michael Romano, who directs the Stanford Three Strikes Project, made eight other recommendations, including death row considerations and addressing racial and economic disparities in traffic tickets. 

Because of those recommendations, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced SB 81, which would create a set of guidelines for courts so that sentence enhancements would no longer be applied to nonviolent offenses unless a judge determines that they are necessary to protect public safety.

Roughly 80% of people in prison are serving a sentence term that includes extra time added on by a sentencing enhancement, data shows. In some cases, the amount of prison time added due to sentencing enhancements is five to 10 years or more — longer than the term for the underlying conviction, according to Skinner's office. The committee’s report also noted that "enhancements are applied disproportionately against people of color and people suffering from mental illness."

Plus, research reviewed by the Penal Code Revision Committee showed no evidence that the proliferation of sentencing enhancements in California has made the state safer.

Judges currently have the authority to dismiss most sentencing enhancements but rarely exercise that discretion, in part because California law does not provide clear guidance on what judges should do. 

Skinner also introduced SB 82, which would update a 150-year-old statute that has allowed prosecutors to elevate a petty theft charge into felony robbery. The bill would establish a clear distinction between theft and robbery for cases when no deadly weapon was used and no one was seriously injured. New York, Oregon, Illinois, and Texas are among the states that have enacted reforms similar to SB 82.

"Petty theft, like shoplifting, should never be treated as felony robbery,"  Skinner said in a statement. "California’s robbery statute hasn’t been updated since 1872. It’s time for us to make sure the punishment is proportionate to the crime committed."

Under California’s robbery statute, a person who uses minimal "force" or is perceived to invoke "fear" during a petty theft can be charged and convicted of felony robbery and sentenced to up to five years in prison. The terms "force" and "fear" are often interpreted loosely, her office said.

For example, someone accused of having made a verbal threat during a shoplifting incident, even when no force was used and no weapon was involved, can be charged with robbery. Likewise, if the person accused of shoplifting bumps into another customer or security guard while running out of the store, causing no serious injury, the charge can be elevated to robbery.

Data shows that robbery charges are much more likely when a shoplifter is a person of color, Skinner's office said. People experiencing a mental health crisis or who have a developmental disability also have a higher likelihood of having their charge include "force" or "fear."

Among other things, SB 82 would create a new category of "petty theft in the first degree" for thefts under $950 that may involve force or fear but do not result in serious injury or involve the use of a deadly weapon. This new category would be punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.