Articles Tagged with changes in California law

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.

On October 11 California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill sponsored by the ACLU of California into law that will impact sentencing for felons convicted of crimes in which a firearm was used. Is the new law a good thing or a bad thing? It really depends on your own opinion. According to some reports law enforcement leaders feel Senate Bill 620 will only result in additional gun violence, however Senator Steve Bradford, author of the bill, says it’s really about justice.

Bradford said in a statement that “No one disputes that crimes involving firearms must be taken seriously, but California should not continue forcing judges to dole out extreme and overly punitive sentences that don’t fit the crime.” Bradford feels that judges should be afforded the same discretion at sentencing that prosecutors are afforded when filing criminal charges, and that California’s “overly punitive” sentencing laws disproportionately affected people of color.

Prior to signing Senate Bill 620 into law, judges were prohibited from dismissing or striking a firearm sentence enhancement for offenders who committed felony offenses involving firearms. If an individual was arrested for a criminal offense involving a gun, certain enhancements were added to the charges which were mandatory. Ultimately, this meant someone convicted of the charges could face a substantially longer prison term, sometimes decades longer. This new law gives judges the power to determine punishment, taking away prosecutors’ power to determine enhancements.

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