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Childhood sexual abuse is one of most horrific crimes imaginable. Given that it is one of the most underreported crimes, it is very hard to determine the exact number of victims, but what is undisputable is that millions of individuals have suffered instances of sexual abuse as minors. In fact, according to some studies, about 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience childhood sexual abuse.

Childhood sexual assault can have a devastating and long lasting effect on a survivor of such abuse. Various studies have shown that survivors are more likely to develop depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse issues, risky sexual behavior, and to struggle with various mental health issues, as well as inability to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships. Victims of childhood sexual assault are also at a higher risk for suicide and suicide attempts. Many survivors experience feelings of shame, guilt, self-blame, and have a hard time coming forward and reporting being sexually assaulted as minors. Furthermore, very often survivors suppress the memories of the assault and don’t recall it for many years after the fact.

Until January 2020, the law in California required individuals who had been sexually abused as children to come forward within eight years of turning eighteen years of age, or within three years of the time the victim discovered or should have discovered that their subsequent psychological injury or illness as an adult, was the result of sexual abuse as a child. The prior California law was severely criticized for being too restrictive and for failing to take into account the many factors affecting survivors’ ability to come forward for years after the abuse had taken place, including the stigma attached, embarrassment, or shame. The law also ignored those victims that need years of professional help to even recall the abuse.

What is a pardon – Eligibility and Benefits

The effects of a criminal conviction do not end once an individual has served their sentence. In fact, the consequences of a criminal conviction can last forever and can impede the rest of a person’s life. Fortunately, the California Constitution gives the governor the power to grant clemency in the form of a sentence commutation or a pardon. While a commutation is directed at people who are still serving a sentence, a pardon is designed to reward people who have shown that they have been fully rehabilitated after serving their sentence for a criminal conviction.

In general, anyone who had been convicted and has completed his or her probation or parole for a California state criminal offense can apply for a Governor’s pardon. The only exceptions are for individuals who have been impeached, as well as those convicted for crimes in other jurisdictions or for federal crimes.

What’s Commutation – Eligibility and Benefits

For the past few decades, California has been known for its tough-on-crime policies and its extremely harsh sentences. Fortunately, the California Constitution gives an individual the right to seek a commutation of sentence. Commutation is a form of clemency that the governor has the authority to grant and is an important form of post-conviction relief. In short, commutation is a reduction or a termination of a sentence.

Almost anyone who has been convicted of a state criminal offense can apply to have their sentence commuted, with the only exception being for individuals that have been impeached. Notably, commutation applies only to state crimes, and the governor lacks the power to commute sentences for convictions in another state or country, or for federal or military offenses.

History of California’s Three Strikes Law

In 1994, Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 184 and enacted the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, which was later codified by Penal Code §667. The goal of the new law was to increase public safety and to reduce the crime rate by giving repeat offenders harsher sentences. In its original version the law required that the sentence for any felony committed by a defendant with one prior serious or violent felony conviction be doubled, and imposed a sentence of 25 years to life to any person for any felony, if the person had two prior convictions for serious or violent felonies.

In the years since its inception, the Three Strikes law has had a devastating effect on thousands of defendants. The law has led to mass incarceration and has disproportionately affected people of color, as well as the mentally ill and physically disabled defendants. Moreover, while the financial cost to the taxpayers has been exorbitant, research has shown that the extreme sentences have had little to no effect on the reduction of crime rates.

In 1994, through Proposition 184, California enacted the unduly harsh Three Strikes law, which was later codified by Penal Code 667. Under the Three Strikes law, a so-called repeat offender with one or more prior violent and/or serious felonies, would receive a harsher prison sentence for a subsequent qualifying felony conviction, with a defendant with two or more such prior convictions, receiving a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life. While the Three Strikes law has been widely criticized for leading to mass incarceration and for disproportionately affecting minorities and people of color, as well as for not having a significant impact on public safety, the law is still in effect and continues to have a severe impact on the lives of thousands of defendants.

Fortunately, in 1996, in the landmark case of People v. Superior Court (Romero), the California Supreme Court gave defendants a glimpse of hope when it held that a trial court, pursuant to section 1385(a) of the California Penal Code, may, on its own, and “in furtherance of justice” strike or vacate an allegation that a defendant has been previously convicted of a serious and/or violent felony.

In that case, the defendant, Jesus Romero, was charged with possession of 0.13 grams of cocaine. The offense by itself would have resulted in up to 3 years in prison. However, the prosecutor in the case also alleged that Romero had two prior “strike” convictions for residential burglary and for an attempted residential burglary, and under the new Three Strikes law, he was facing 25 years-to-life prison sentence for simple possession of narcotics.

In the last few years, California’s leaders have finally put the effort to improve the State’s criminal justice system and to course-correct its policies. One of the main principles of the criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. However, during the 1990s, the California legislature actively pursued tough on crime policies and during that time enacted more than a hundred different sentence enhancements, which have added years to the prison terms of majority of inmates. The tough on crime policies and the aggressive laws enacted as a result, have not only distorted one of the most basic legal standards of the criminal justice system, but they have also had a devastating effect on thousands of inmates, on the state budget, and have disproportionately affected marginalized and minority communities.

In 2020, Governor Newsom commissioned the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code to thoroughly examine the California Penal Code and to issue recommendations for reform. When it came to sentence enhancements, overwhelming evidence was presented that their application has failed to improve public safety and has resulted in unnecessarily long incarcerations and inequity. Studies have shown that these enhancements, which are not elements of the crime and could result in double the time a person spends in prison, have been applied disproportionately to people of color and those suffering of mental illness. During testimony before the Committee, the former Governor Brown argued that California should abolish all enhancements or, at minimum, give judges better guidance on how and when they should be applied to avoid arbitrary use.

Prior to SB 81, while judges had the authority to dismiss sentence enhancements, they almost never did so, as the law provided them with no clear guidance. Even the California Supreme Court had noted that the standards used by judges are vague. As a result, based on the Committee’s findings and recommendations on the issue, SB 81 was passed and Governor Newsom signed it into law on October 8, 2021. SB 81 became effective on January 1, 2022. Senator Skinner, who introduced the bill, has said that “SB 81 sends a clear message to our courts: Let’s use sentence enhancements judiciously and only when necessary to protect the public.”

Thousands of people in California have been serving unjustly long sentences because they have been convicted of murder, manslaughter, or attempted murder, even though they never killed, attempted to kill, or intended for a person to die. Until January 2019, that was the reality for countless of inmates who had been convicted of murder under the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences theory for simply participating in certain crimes that had resulted in the death of a person.

In 2018, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 1437, which amended the felony murder rule and allowed inmates convicted of felony murder or murder under the natural and probable consequences theory to petition the court to have their murder sentences recalled and to obtain resentencing for the underlying offense only. While advocates of criminal justice reform in California welcomed SB 1437, the law overlooked a substantial number of inmates, who had been convicted of manslaughter or attempted murder under the old theories and who were left ineligible to petition for resentencing under SB 1437.

Thankfully, the California legislature corrected this colossal oversight, and on October 5, 2021, Governor Newsom signed into law SB 775, which came into effect on January 1, 2022. By giving inmates convicted of attempted murder or manslaughter under the old doctrines the life-changing opportunity to petition the court for recall and resenting, SB 775 closed the gap that SB 1437 had left open.

On January 1, 2018, SB 180 went into effect and repealed the prior California law, which required a sentencing court to impose a 3-year enhancement for every prior conviction for controlled substance crimes. The only exception left was in instances where the prior convictions were for crimes that involve the use of a minor in the commission of the crime. Similarly, prior to January 1, 2020, the law required that a sentencing court impose a 1-year enhancement for each prior prison or felony jail term. Starting January 1, 2020, the SB 136 law limited the application of this enhancement to defendants who had served a prison term for a sexually violent offense.

While criminal justice reform advocates had welcomed these laws, criticism remained, as the laws did not apply retroactively. SB 483 or The Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act corrects that by applying SB 180 and SB 136 retroactively. Governor Newsom signed SB 483 into law on October 8, 2021, which went into effect on January 1, 2022. This law is the latest attempt by the California legislature to correct the harm caused by unjust and disproportionately long sentences. It has long been argued that long sentences cause more harm than good, as they have been proven ineffective as deterrents to crime, and have had negative impact on the well being and safety of defendants and communities alike. As the Legislature specifically states in the new bill, the goal of the RISE Act is to address systemic racial biases in sentencing and to ensure equal justice under the law.

Under the new law, inmates do not have to petition the court for resentencing. Instead, the new law requires that the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) identify all incarcerated individuals serving sentences that include one of those enhancements. CDCR had until March 1, 2022, to identify all individuals that have served their base sentences and any other enhancements, and who are currently serving time based on the repealed enhancements, and until July 1, 2022, to identify all other individuals.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and within the US, California hosts the second largest prison population behind Texas. Mass incarceration has led to overcrowding, which in turn has resulted in increased health risks and decreased psychological welfare of inmates. In recent years, California’s legislature has worked hard to correct the devastating results of the state’s traditional tough on crimes policies, which have led to excessively punitive sentences and have affected and continue to affect poor people and minorities disproportionately. Long sentences have not only failed to increase public safety, but have also had a damaging effect on vulnerable individuals, especially those who have committed their offenses as minors.

In 2018, Governor Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2942, which went into effect on January 1, 2019. Prior to AB 2942, there were no legal vehicles for district attorneys to revisit and re-evaluate sentences and, when warranted in the pursuit of justice, to recommend a sentence recall and reduction. Nowadays, due to AB 2942, local district attorneys have been given the discretionary power to revisit cases to determine whether the further confinement of inmates facing overly prolonged incarceration is in the interest of justice, and if it is not, to recommend a case for resentencing.

AB 2942 does not provide for any exclusions. That means that cases involving any type of offense or sentence are potentially eligible for recommendation for recall of a sentence. Furthermore, the law does not provide for any requirements of time served. Notably, this law could potentially provide relief for immigrant defendants facing immigration consequences based on their sentences, by having them reduced to non-deportable ones.

The “DREAM Act,” first introduced into Congress in 2001, was intended to grant United States citizenship to immigrant children at risk of deportation. The Act stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, and the children it would protect are often called “Dreamers.” The idea behind “Dreamers” is based on the “American dream.” By offering the American dream to so many individuals who spent part of their childhoods in the United States, they will have opportunities they may not otherwise have in their home countries. Although several bill versions have been introduced in Congress, the DREAM Act has never fully passed or become law.

2021 Versions Of The Bill

For the 2021-2022 legislative session, both the House of Representatives and Senate have introduced versions of the DREAM Act. The Senate introduced The Dream Act of 2021 (S. 264), and the House of Representatives introduced The Dream and Promise Act of 2021 (H.R. 6). The current version of the bill has passed in the House of Representatives. The bills differ, but their significant elements are generally the same. Both bills ultimately provide Dreamers an easier pathway to U.S. citizenship.

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