In the last few years, numerous studies have shown that racial biases and discrimination have been widespread across California’s criminal justice system. It is undisputed that, in the last few decades, California’s tough on crime policies have disproportionately affected marginalized communities and people of color. For example, in its 2020 report, the Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code found that gang enhancements have been applied inconsistently and have disproportionately affected communities of color. Moreover, the report specifically states that in Los Angeles, 98 percent of people who received gang enhancements were people of color.
In 1987, in McClesky v. Kemp, the U.S. Supreme Court limited courts’ ability to address systemic discrimination by requiring defendants to prove purposeful discrimination by more than statistical disparities. Unfortunately, the Court failed to recognize the reality that most systemic biases are unintentional and throughout the years have been more damaging than occurrences of outright racism. As a result, the decision by the Court left thousands of defendants without recourse.
Fortunately, as part of the ongoing effort to rectify the troubling and devastating effects that California’s laws and policies have had on minority communities and to redress the McClesky decision, in 2020, the State legislature passed AB 2542, which prohibited the state from seeking a conviction or a sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. Recognizing that AB 2542 did not go far enough, in 2022, the California legislature passed AB 256 or the Racial Justice Act for All. The new bill provided a staggered timeline for defendants with cases in which final judgment was entered before January 1, 2021, to seek relief. Moreover, AB 256 expands the type of evidence that defendants can present and requires courts to consider the totality of the evidence and not only statistical evidence.