SB 81– (Skinner) Status:08/18/2021 Set for hearing 08/26/2021Background: California’s penal code has multiple sentence enhancements that can be added to a criminal charge. Sentence enhancements are not elements of the crime, they are additional circumstances that increase the penalty, or time served, of the underlying crime. While the application of an enhancement may appear straightforward, research reviewed last year by the Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code revealed inconsistency in their use. Current law allows judges to dismiss sentencing enhancements “in furtherance of justice.” This standard lacks clarity and does not provide judges clear guidance on how to exercise this discretion. A ruling by the California Supreme Court noted that the law governing when judges should impose or dismiss enhancements remains an “amorphous concept,” with discretion inconsistently exercised and underused because judges did not have adequate guidance. Data indicates that in about 20% of cases, judges chose not to apply sentence enhancements. Conversely, in about 80% of cases, individuals had their terms lengthened by sentence enhancements, in many cases with two, three or more enhancements assigned. Thus, for committing the same crime some individuals receive only the base sentence while others have five, ten or more years added to their time. Building on the California Rules of Court that guide judges in certain sentencing decisions, SB 81 aims to provide clear guidance on how and when judges may apply sentence enhancements. By clarifying the parameters a judge must follow, SB 81 codifies a recommendation made by the Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code to improve fairness in sentencing and help ensure that penalties more closely reflect the circumstances of the crime.
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