(This opinion essay was first published in CalMatters on May 26, 2021.)
One of the basic tenets of our criminal justice system is that punishment is supposed to be proportionate to the crime. But in the wave of “tough on crime laws” passed in the 1990s, California turned that longtime legal standard on its head, instead adopting many sentencing enhancements, which add years to a person’s prison term, often doubling it.
California’s Penal Code is now weighed down by more than 150 separate sentence enhancements, ranging from add-ons for possible gang association, having a prior conviction or being on probation. Such enhancements are now routinely applied in nearly every criminal case in the state.
In fact, 80% of people in state prison are serving a term lengthened by a sentence enhancement, and more than 25% of those incarcerated are serving sentences extended by at least three enhancements.
Enhancements, which can add a decade or more to a person’s prison term, have also played a significant role in causing prison overcrowding and have traditionally disproportionately impacted people of color. For example, more than 97% of people sentenced to prison for a gang enhancement in the state are Black, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander or Native American.