Potential New Felony Murder Rule SCR 48 Awaits California Governor’s Signature

SCR 48 (Senate Concurrent Resolution 48) is a bill that is intended to reform the Felony Murder Rule in California, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and awaiting Governor Brown’s signature as it has passed in both the California State Assembly and California State Senate.

Ultimately, SCR 48 is a bill that recognizes punishment for felony murder should be proportionate to the crime committed. In California, a person can be sentenced to life in prison for a first-degree murder conviction, even though the individual did not actually murder someone. In fact, California prisons are filled with inmates facing life behind bars for murders they didn’t actually commit. Doesn’t make sense, but here is a possible scenario that could leave someone facing a life prison term for felony murder without actually having committed the crime.

The Felony Murder Rule applies when a crime that is considered “inherently dangerous” such as burglary, arson, rape, kidnapping, or robbery occurs and a person is killed – the defendant does not have to be the one who committed the act, or even have to act with reckless indifference or intent to be convicted of felony murder. Is it fair for someone who may have taken part in an “inherently dangerous” crime but who did not actually commit murder to face the exact same punishment as the person who did actually commit murder? For most, it doesn’t seem fair.

Suppose an individual is sitting outside in a vehicle waiting on his or her friend who has gone inside a bank or convenience store for the purpose of stealing money from the cashier. Things don’t go as planned, the cashier puts up a fight and the perpetrator ends up shooting and killing the cashier, unbeknownst to the driver waiting outside. Now a murder has occurred, and the person driving the “getaway” vehicle is just as culpable as the person who actually pulled the trigger.

SCR 48 is a critical first step in reforming the Felony Murder Rule in California. If passed, judges will be able to determine sentencing on the defendant’s age at the time of the crime, to what degree he or she participated, etc. No longer would an offender who committed the crime of murder and someone who was present during the commission of a serious felony crime but not involved in a killing face the same punishment, life in prison. Perhaps justice will finally be served, and California’s prisons a bit lighter in terms of prisoners who have experienced a huge injustice.

What are your thoughts on SCR 48? This resolution is sponsored by several individuals and criminal justice reform organizations including #cut50 who stated that California’s Felony Murder rule does not treat individuals fairly and equally, and that data supports the fact that those who are poor and people of color face unfair or unequal sentencing.

Only a handful of states in the U.S. have eliminated the Felony Murder Rule, a rule that is only used in the U.S. These states include Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio; could California be the next to do away with this unfair rule?