AB 256 – The Racial Justice Act for All

In the last few years, California’s legislature has been at the forefront of enacting laws aimed at reforming the State’s criminal justice system and rectifying the injustices and the disproportionate effect that some of the State’s policies have had on marginalized and minority communities.

As part of the ongoing effort to fight the biases and racial discrimination that have been prevalent in our criminal legal system, in 2020, the California legislature passed AB 2542, or the Racial Justice Act, which came into effect on January 1, 2021. The law prohibited the state from obtaining or seeking to obtain a criminal conviction or imposing a sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. The landmark law was a step in the right direction and was welcomed by criminal justice reform advocates.

Prior to the passing of AB 2542, proving racial biases was almost impossible. In the 1987 decision McClesky v. Kemp, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed an unreasonably high burden on defendants to prove racism in criminal cases. In short, the Court required defendants to prove intentional discrimination and held that statistical disparities are not enough to show a constitutional violation.

Unfortunately, for all the good AB 2542 aimed to do, it still left thousands of people behind, as it applied only to prospective cases. That issue was rectified with the passing of AB 256, which Governor Newsom signed into law on September 29, 2022. The new Racial Justice Act for All extended the protections of AB 2542 to people, who had been impacted by unfair, biased, and discriminatory convictions or sentences prior to January 1, 2021, and it applies to juvenile convictions as well.

AB 256 gives a new opportunity for people to seek post-conviction relief. If you want to know more about this new law or want to learn if you qualify, our post-conviction attorneys are here to help. The post-conviction attorneys at the Justice Firm are ready to answer your questions and evaluate your case to determine if you qualify for post-conviction relief under this or any other laws.

AB 256 came into effect on January 1, 2023. However, the new law does not apply to everyone immediately, but rather, it creates a phased-in timeline for defendants to seek post-conviction relief:

  • January 1, 2023 – defendants who have been sentenced to death or individuals facing deportation;
  • January 1, 2024 – defendants who are incarcerated for a felony;
  • January 1, 2025 – other individuals who have felony convictions, which were entered after 2015;
  • January 1, 2026 – all other individuals with a felony conviction.

The new Racial Justice Act for All not only will extend protections and provide an avenue of relief for countless of people, but it also broadens the type of evidence that a defendant can present. Under the original act, in order for a defendant to establish that a conviction or a sentence was unlawfully imposed on the basis of race, national origin, or ethnicity, he or she was required to provide statistical evidence or aggregate data. AB 256 now allows a defendant to present nonstatistical evidence and the new law requires judges to consider the totality of the evidence.

In order to prove a violation under the new law, upon making a prima facie case of a violation under the law, a defendant is entitled to hearing where he or she has to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that either:

  • “The judge, an attorney in the case, a law enforcement officer involved in the case, an expert witness, or juror exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin” or
  • During the course of the defendant’s trial, one of the above listed persons “used racially discriminatory language about the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin or otherwise exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin, whether or not purposeful” or
  • The defendant was charged or convicted of a more serious offense than similarly situated individuals of a different race, ethnicity, or national origin and prosecutors in the county “more frequently sought or obtained convictions for more serious offenses against people who share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin” or
  • A longer or more severe sentence was imposed on the defendant than on similarly situated individuals and “longer or more severe sentences were more frequently imposed for that offense on people that share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin than on defendants of other races, ethnicities, or national origins.”

Explicit and implicit systemic racial biases, inequality, and discrimination have been present in our criminal justice system since its inception. The Racial Justice Act for All brings us one step closer to rectifying the injustices and the significant racial disparities that exist in California’s convictions and sentencing history.

The process of challenging a conviction or a sentence under AB 256 is complex and it is important to work with experienced and compassionate attorneys. At the Justice Firm, we know that the attorney-client relationship is an important aspect of your legal journey and our highly skilled and reliable attorneys are here to help and answer any questions you might have. If you or a loved one has questions about this law, or if you think that AB 256 could impact your case, contact our California appeals attorneys today for a case evaluation locally at (310) 914-2444 or at our Toll-Free number at (866) 695-6714, or click here.


Contact Information