Articles Tagged with changes in California law

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.

One of the main principles of our criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. However, in the 1990s, California’s leaders pursued very actively tough on crime policies and during that time more than a hundred different sentencing enhancements were enacted. Throughout the past three decades, these enhancements have added many years to the prison terms of majority of inmates. As a result, currently, California hosts the second largest prison population behind Texas.

Overwhelming evidence has demonstrated that sentencing enhancements have not been the successful deterrent to crime they were designed to be, but even more than that, they have failed to improve public safety and have resulted in unnecessarily long mass incarcerations and inequity. As a result, in the last several years, California’s leaders and legislatures have worked hard to correct the harm caused by unjust and disproportionately long sentences.   Some of the most important laws that were enacted include SB 1393, AB 2942, and SB 81.

SB 1393 or The Fair and Just Sentencing Reform Act of 2018, reformed the law on one of the most commonly used sentencing enhancements in California, namely the 5-year enhancement given for each prior serious felony conviction when a person is currently charged with a serious felony. Prior to 2019, the law specifically prohibited judges from using their discretion to dismiss the 5-year enhancement for prior serious felony. That changed with the enactment of SB 1393. SB 1393 eliminated the mandatory application of the prior serious felony enhancement and allowed judges to use their discretion to strike the enhancement in furtherance of justice.

It is estimated that at least 70 million people in the United States have a record of an arrest or conviction. In California alone, an estimated 8 million people have to live with a criminal record, and in 2018, an estimated 2.5 million Californians of working-age had a felony record. These figures have cost the state approximately $20 billion in gross domestic product annually.

In California, an individual’s criminal record is kept until a person reaches 100 years of age, even though most people with a criminal record had long paid their debt to society. The effects of a criminal record have always been enormous, but this is truer then ever in today’s world where the use of background checks is more widespread than ever. As a result, a quarter of the state’s population is facing numerous barriers to building and having a decent life. The presence of a criminal record prevents people from entering certain careers, obtaining housing, long-term employment, and participating fully in civic life. Most notably, the consequences of a criminal record have historically affected minority communities disproportionately and have been a leading driver of recidivism and perpetual poverty.

For years now, California has been at the forefront of Criminal Justice Reform and has been adopting numerous measures in an attempt to rectify the effects of the tough on crime policies of the past. As part of the ongoing efforts to reform that the California policymakers have embarked on, and recognizing the devastating consequences a criminal record can have on a person’s ability to reintegrate into society, they passed SB 731. Governor Newsom signed the bill into law on September 29, 2022, and the bill became effective on July 1, 2023.

Despite the ongoing efforts by California’s leaders to improve the State’s criminal justice system and to make it fairer, California still has some of the most severe sentence enhancements in the United States.

One of the main principles of the criminal justice system is that the punishment has to fit the crime. Unfortunately, California’s hyper punitive policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, resulted in a serious distortion of one of the most basic legal standards of the criminal justice system. By the end of the 1990s, California’s legislature had managed to enact more than one hundred different enhancements, which have added years to the prison sentences of majority of inmates. The State’s aggressive sentencing enhancement laws have led to mass incarceration, overburdening of the state’s budget, and most importantly, have disproportionately affected marginalized and minority communities and their economies.

There have been numerous studies on enhancements that have shown that adding time to an already lengthy sentence has not been a successful deterrent to crime and has not had a positive impact on public safety. In line with these studies, the California legislature has been working hard to enact laws that will prevent the application of indiscriminate sentence enhancements while still allowing judges to impose harsh and lengthy sentences when the conduct demands it.

The United States of America has the largest prison population in the world. Not only does the US have more incarcerated people than even China, but the United States account for roughly 25 percent of the world’s total prison population, and within the country, California ranks second behind only Texas.

The mass incarceration in California has not only caused prison overcrowding, but has also had a devastating impact on the State’s budget, as the annual cost per prisoner is over $100,000. The tough on crime policies of the 1990s have not only led to overcrowding of California’s prisons and a strain on the State’s budget, but they have also proved counterproductive and have had a detrimental impact on countless of inmates and their families, and have disproportionately affected marginal and minority communities.

Fortunately, in the last several years, California’s leaders have recognized than many of the State’s sentencing laws have not only failed to effectively serve their intended purpose of increasing public safety, but more than that, they have led to excessively punitive sentences, unnecessarily long incarcerations, and overall inequities.

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.

Until 2019, countless of inmates in California had been serving unjustly long sentences for murder convictions, even though they never killed, attempted to kill, or intended for a person to die. Fortunately, as part of the ongoing criminal justice reform in California, in 2017, the state legislature acknowledged the need for more equitable sentencing of offenders and determined that reform in the laws is necessary to reflect one of the basic principles of the law and of equity, that a person should be punished for his o her actions based on their own level of individual culpability.

As a result of their findings, the California Legislature concluded that the felony murder rule and the natural and probable consequences doctrine, as it relates to murder, have to be amended, and on September 30, 2018, the former California Governor Jerry Brown, signed into law SB 1437, which was codified as Penal Code §1170.95. In short, SB 1437 changes Penal Code §§188 and 189 by limiting the number of people that can be convicted of felony murder, and by effectively eliminating the role of the natural and probable consequences doctrine in murder cases.

Prior to SB 1437, a person could have been convicted of felony murder if he or she participated in or aided in the commission of a felony and a victim died during or as a result of the felony. Under the new law, in order for someone to be convicted of felony murder, he or she has to participate or attempt to participate in a felony in which a death occurs and:

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.

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