California lawmakers want to end mandatory jail, prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders

California lawmakers are proposing new legislation that would put an end to mandatory jail or prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. 

SB 378, introduced by state Sen. Scott Wienr and Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, would repeal mandatory minimums that require judges to sentence offenders convicted of drug possession to jail or prison. Under the bill, judges can use their discretion to determine how to charge nonviolent drug offenders, possibly placing them on probation or enrolling them in a diversion program. 

"This does not eliminate a judge's ability to sentence someone to prison but takes off the handcuffs and requirement for judges to sentence them," Wiener said during a Zoom press conference.

As some advocacy groups and politicians have pointed out, California is implicated in the tangled web of mass incarceration, dating back to when America first waged the war on drugs in the 1970s. 

"We know that in California, we were tragically pioneers in mass incarceration. California helped lead the way for incarcerating people for long periods of time," Wiener said. 

That era resulted in a prison building spree in California that disproportionately criminalizated Black and brown communities.

“Mass incarceration is deeply harmful to our state — part of the structural racism afflicting our entire criminal justice system— and we must end it," Wiener said. "California’s addiction to over-incarceration tears families and communities apart, doesn’t make us safer."

As the nation reckons with the police killings of unarmed Black Americans, eyes are also focusing on the roots of the country's criminal justice system. That's become an even more pressing issue during a time when COVID-19 is rampant in overcrowded prison and jail facilities, like in California. 

"Right now, as our jails and prisons see massive spikes in COVID-19 cases, we need to do everything we can to reduce our incarcerated population," Wiener wrote in a press release.

Overcrowding has made California prisons and jails extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. San Quentin State Prison has the most cases, currently at 922. And at Santa Rita Jail cases have soared past 100. 

"In the era of COVID-19, we shouldn’t be crowding our prisons with people convicted of drug offenses. SB 378 will help us avoid the explosive COVID spread we’re seeing in our prisons," Wiener wrote on Twitter. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said of the first seven people to die behind bars of COVID-19 in California, five of them were imprisoned for drug offenses.