In summary

By eliminating sentencing enhancements, we can incentivize positive behavior at maximum-security prisons like Pelican Bay.

By Kunlyna Tauch, Special to CalMatters

Kunlyna Tauch is a Cambodian American from Long Beach who is incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison, empowermentave@gmail.com. He writes for Empowerment Avenue as a reporter and essayist.

When George Gascón became district attorney of Los Angeles County, he directed his prosecutors to seek the dismissal of almost all three strikes, gun, gang and other so-called sentencing enhancements. Recently, after Los Angeles County prosecutors filed a lawsuit to halt his progressive directives, a judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking him from ordering his prosecutors to seek shorter prison sentences in current cases.

That battle may be a hint of what’s to come as President Joe  Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, California’s former district attorney, enact wider criminal justice reform.

From inside prison it’s clear that by simply eliminating sentencing enhancements, we can not only dramatically reduce our prison population, but also incentivize positive behavior at even the maximum-security facility where I live, California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

Mandatory minimums like gang and gun enhancements are common charges at Pelican Bay. Typically, someone at a young age and in a lapse of judgment shot at another person but didn’t hit anyone. They receive 5 to 10 years for their crime. The law forces the judge to add an additional 25-to-life for the use of a gun and 10 to 20 years for being involved in a gang. Five to 10 years quickly becomes a virtual life sentence.

It’s my own experience. I was convicted of first-degree murder in 2009 and am serving 50 years to life. If I didn’t have my gun enhancement, my parole board date would be set for 2031 as opposed to 2057. With all my credits for good behavior, the date could go as far down as 2023.

These mandatory minimums were created during the war on drugs, when policymakers were more concerned with being tough on crime than the lives they would ruin in the process. In the years since, we’ve seen a culture shift, both inside and outside prisons.

I’ve witnessed California prisons change – where violence was once imminent there’s now a focus on self-improvement and options of rehabilitative programs. In 2016, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 57 to facilitate sentence reductions for prisoners with sustained good behavior in those very programs.

This was a homerun for those serving “light” prison terms. But for those of us with enhancements, Prop. 57 offered credits on a date too far out to fathom. My parole date was decreased from 2057 to 2048.

As a community leader who mentors my peers in Pelican Bay’s B-Yard, I see guys struggling to commit to change because their sentences are in the hundreds of years, without incentives to change or cause for hope. They struggle not with the conviction – many will readily admit to their faults and what led them to their crime – but sentences that scream “un-rehabitable” without directly saying it.

I’ve packed the past six years with late nights of studying, writing and community work. I’m not alone. If our enhancements were struck, we’d be acknowledged for classes we took and self-improvement we committed to. We’d show others inside that committing to change offers a real pathway out. We’d finally have skin in the game when it comes to our freedom and how we choose to live our lives.

Gascón’s directive was a first step. If it is sustained, it will bring people back to court and re-sentence them by “retroactively” striking enhancements, excluding sex and hate crimes. If a person already served their time, their case will be resolved. That’s $85,000 less spent per year, per person, on someone who no longer needs to be in prison.

Still, Gascón’s directive would only apply to people within his jurisdiction. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated across the United States, and every single state has enacted some form of sentence enhancement legislation.

Los Angeles County can provide the blueprint for sentencing reform around the country – the Biden administration could make it a nationwide reality. Because this “radical reform” isn’t radical at all. It’s actually just common sense.

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Kunlyna Tauch uses his time representing several self-help groups such as Hustle 2.0, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Pelican Bay Unlocked podcast, the Arcata Zen Group and the College of the Redwoods. 

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