Law & the Courts

California Democrats Suddenly Think Mandatory Minimums Are a Good Idea

(Dreamstime image: Merydolla)
A bill passed in response to the Brock Turner case would impose minimum sentences on rapists.

Progressive politicians contend that mandatory-minimum prison sentences are unjust and lead to mass incarceration — until, that is, a judge grants a lenient sentence to someone convicted of a crime that they especially abhor. Then, they suddenly change their narrative.

Last week, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 2888. The measure mandates a minimum three-year prison sentence for those convicted of rape. It was inspired by the case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman after a fraternity party and received a mere six-month sentence behind bars — of which he served only three. Just one state legislator voted against the bill.

That legislator stuck to her guns. “We should not perpetuate practices that put an undue burden on minorities and economically disadvantaged communities like minimum mandatory sentences,” Democratic assembly member Cristina Garcia told National Review in a statement. “The limiting of judicial discretion falls primarily on minorities and the economically disadvantaged which are why the bill is opposed by the ACLU and why I voted no on this legislation.”

The California Democratic Party has in the past agreed with Garcia. They have thrown their support behind Proposition 57, an initiative on the ballot this November that would make it easier to parole more non-violent felons. “Non-violent” felonies, as defined by the law, include rape by intoxication, rape of an unconscious person, human trafficking, and the list goes on.

So where were Garcia’s fellow Democrats when Bill 2888 was making its way through the statehouse? Or are mandatory minimums only a problem when they are applied to crimes that Democrats particularly dislike? From the outside, it certainly seems so. Indeed, many of the same politicians who endorsed Prop 57 — a ballot initiative that would take felons convicted of rape out of jail earlier — put their names to Bill 2888, a bill that aims to put those same felons away for longer.

Turner’s short prison sentence deserved the national attention it got. But for the majority-Democrat legislature to propose as a solution the very measure that it has consistently fought against as the root of over-incarceration is preposterous.

Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit promoting prison-sentencing reform, believes the bill is misguided. “Many people believe the judge was too lenient,” Mauer tells National Review. “But once we start legislating based on a single case, it almost inevitably results in excessive punishment and overstepping the reasonable bounds between the legislature and the judiciary.”

Mauer says that “no two offenders are alike,” and a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer. Bill 2888, he says, is designed to create a deterrent effect by forcing potential offenders to think twice about their actions. But it is unlikely that the proposed law would deter people like Turner. “Cases like Stanford, when people are high on drugs or alcohol, people are not thinking rationally,” Mauer says.

Traditionally, arguments such as Mauer’s have been used by California Democrats in their ongoing fight against mandatory-minimum sentences, and against the mass incarceration that they claim such sentences cause. In 2014, when the legislature repealed a law dictating mandatory minimums for certain drug-related offenses, Democratic assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer said in a statement that “evidence has shown that mandatory minimum sentences are not an effective deterrent to reducing crime.” Yet Jones-Sawyer voted for Bill 2888.

And last May, when the legislature voted in favor of ending mandatory-minimum sentences for prostitution offenses, Democratic state senator Bill Monning explained his vote by asserting that “mandatory minimum jail terms for prostitution are an expensive and highly-flawed policy.”

Democrats in California have been relentless in their fight to remove mandatory-minimum sentencing across the criminal-justice system. Now, however, they are championing mandatory-minimum sentencing as a panacea. Why? Because they want to be seen as taking action on this cause. Whatever else it professes to do, Bill 2888 does nothing better than to reveal California’s progressive politicians for the directionless hypocrites they are.

Austin Yack — Austin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.

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