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Assemblymember Alex Lee Introduces Bill to Limit Sentencing Enhancements that Contribute to Mass Incarceration

For immediate release:

Sacramento, CA - To correct decades of harm done to communities of color, Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose) has introduced AB 1509, the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act to reduce sentence “add-ons” or enhancements for firearms which punish people duplicatively for the same crime without enhancing public safety. Sentencing enhancements have not proven to deter crime nor reduce recidivism rates while disproportionately impacting people of color with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) making up more than 89% of those serving time with gun enhancements.


“Extreme sentencing enhancements have fueled mass incarceration for decades without deterring crime or making us any safer,” said Assemblymember Lee.


With over two million people currently in the nation's prisons and jails, the United States leads the world in mass incarceration. While we have about 5% of the world’s population, we currently house 25% of the world's incarcerated population. In California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California's prisons violates the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Severe overcrowding in our state prisons have resulted in extreme suffering and death. During the pandemic, one in five incarcerated people tested positive for the coronavirus.


Over the decades, mass incarceration has led to prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety. Further, the communities most impacted by high incarceration rates continue to experience high crime rates.


"Over the last 10 years I have buried two of my younger brothers. As a survivor of violent crimes, I have learned that enhancements do not create safety. Survivors want safety and sentence enhancements aren’t designed to create safety but designed to exact extreme punishment. It is time for common-sense reform that can help everyone,” said LaNaisha Edwards, survivor and program director at Re:Store Justice.


While crime rates are not increasing, harsher sentencing laws simply drive up incarceration rates. Higher incarceration rates result in overcrowding of prisons and soaring costs to the taxpayer in order to house the incarcerated people.


Firearm enhancements are one of the most commonly used enhancements that add extra years to a sentence. If someone uses a firearm during the commission of a robbery, they could be charged for the offense which ranges from three to eight years, as well as additional time for the use. The enhancement could range anywhere from 10 years to a life term. The firearm enhancement is then served consecutively, not concurrently, so a person will end up serving as much as ten times as long as the underlying offense in enhancement time. 


Moreover, the firearm does not need to be physically recovered for the enhancement to apply at trial -- testimony about the firearm is sufficient. And, if a firearm is recovered, it does not need to be loaded or operable for the use enhancements to apply.  Discriminatory criminal justice policies at all stages of the justice system have disadvantaged people of color and have contributed to mass incarceration rates. California’s Penal Code Revision Committee has shown that 89% of people who have enhancements are Black, Indigenous, people of color, and that firearm enhancements are the most common enhancement with over 40,000 people incarcerated with a firearm enhancement – which is approximately 40% of the entire incarcerated population.


“I am proud to co-author AB 1509 with Assemblymember Lee this year. The Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act is a big step towards eradicating some of the outrageous racial disparities we see in our criminal legal system,” said Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay).


The bill will reduce the use of most firearm enhancements which are unduly punitive and add on dozens of years to a person’s sentence for the same crime; It will be retroactive so those sentenced with firearm enhancements will be eligible for immediate relief. The bill will also modify the sentencing in two sections of the Penal Code (Penal Code §12022.53 and Penal Code §12022.5) to a one year, two year or three year triad.


"Gun enhancements add years to loved ones' sentences, are often used as a plea bargaining tool, and have no real correlation to public safety. We've seen dozens of families bear the burden of excessive sentences that don't lead to real rehabilitation,” noted Silicon Valley De-bug, a co-sponsor of AB 1509.


"Sentencing enhancements are not only racist, but abusive. Sentencing Black, Brown and people of color to 10 additional years, or 20 additional years, or life in prison in addition to the sentence is excessive and unreasonable. We have to undo mass incarceration and the abuse we’ve normalized,” said Adnan Khan, Executive Director for Re:Store Justice and co-sponsor of AB 1509. “We have to tap into our own humanity and stop these draconian practices. We are grateful for Assemblymember Lee leading transformative change."


Reducing the use of sentencing enhancements does not mean that there are no punitive actions taken, but rather, the reduction aims to curtail the extreme sentencing length of the enhancement. Research has shown little evidence that extreme sentence lengths deter people from committing crimes. Incapacitation also offers diminishing returns as the prisoner ages, as criminal behavior and recidivism rates drop steadily throughout life. 


"The data is clear: Sentence enhancements do not keep us safe. The current approach of piling enhancements on top of convictions is an antiquated practice that needs to be rooted out from the core of California’s criminal legal system. We are proud to co-sponsor AB 1509 (Lee) and begin this work to dismantle enhancements,” said Taina Vargas, Executive Director of Initiate Justice and co-sponsor of AB 1509.


It currently costs California roughly $81,000 a year to incarcerate a person, which can balloon to over $5 million for lifetime incarceration. As noted by the California Budget and Policy Center, downsizing California’s costly prison infrastructure could allow the state to reduce the size of the corrections footprint on the state budget. This, in turn, would free up resources that could be used for reentry assistance and other services that can help to promote rehabilitation, reduce poverty, strengthen communities, and tackle some of the root causes of crime.