California Democratic lawmakers look to remove penalty for possessing firearm during crime

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Reform-minded activists in California vow to move forward after a bill that would have dramatically reduced, and in some cases eliminated, enhanced sentences for crimes committed while using a gun failed to advance through the legislature Thursday.  

“AB 1509 was held in the Appropriations committee and will not move forward this year,” Greg Fidell, policy manager of Initiate Justice, wrote on Twitter. “This is very painful – but we will be back stronger next year.”

The state lawmakers who backed the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act claim the existing law, which allows prosecutors to seek additional time behind bars, is racist — 89% of the roughly 40,000 inmates serving gun enhancement sentences in California are people of color, according to figures from Restore Justice. 

In California, the penalty for possessing a firearm while committing serious crimes, like robbery and attempted murder, means an additional 10-year term on top of the sentence for the underlying crime. Shooting a gun during the commission of the crime can add 20 years, wounding someone can add an additional 25 years to life sentence.

The California bill would have reduced those terms to one, two or a maximum of three years and repealed any gun enhancement for some lesser crimes.

Most states have laws allowing for the add-ons whether as a mandatory charge or discretionary application by prosecutors.

In Illinois, where similar reform efforts are underway, simply possessing a firearm will add a 15-year term to the base sentence. Activists there call it “draconian, expensive and racist” and back legislation to make firearm enhancements discretionary for juvenile offenders and, over time, adults.

“There’s ample research that long sentences don’t deter crime. It’s actually the swiftness and the surety of consequences that deters crime, not the length of the sentence,” said Restore Justice executive director Jobi Cates. “The length of the sentence just costs the state and communities and families hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars and destroys lives. It doesn’t make us safer. It’s a myth.”

Prosecutors call that a huge mistake, especially now as violent crime spikes around the country.

“The reason they should be sentenced more severely is the use of the gun greatly increases the danger that someone’s actually going to be killed,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “Certainly a longer sentence for a habitual criminal does improve public safety by preventing them from committing crimes during the time of the sentence.”

California’s AB 1509 initially passed the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee on a party line vote before failing to advance to the floor Thursday.  Its main sponsor, Democrat Alex Lee, wouldn’t do an interview with Fox News but in a press release said the current sentencing law is extreme and that his bill  “is about undoing failed policies of systemic racism in our justice system that have led to overincarceration.”

“Reducing a 25-year sentence to one, two or three years – I don’t think so,” said Laurie Palmer, of Portland, Oregon, who founded the community group Go Get Your Kid after her son was shot. “But 25, that’s too much for some, they’re just kids.”

Palmer acknowledged some prosecutors abuse the enhancement as a hammer to just to get a guilty plea, but she opposes a retroactive provision included in AB 1509 that would allow thousands of inmates to walk out of prison once their base term is complete.

“We already have pretty violent communities right now,” she said. “If you’re talking about just releasing a whole bunch of violent criminals like right now — no, no, no, no. That ain’t going to go well.” 

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