Two criminal Justice Reform Bills on Hold in CA Legislature

Two bills that would go a long way toward reforming California’s seriously flawed criminal justice systems are on hold until January.
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Two bills that would go a long way toward reforming California’s seriously flawed criminal justice systems are on hold until January.

The California Racial Justice Act for All (AB 256), which addresses institutionalized and implicit racial bias in criminal cases, stalled late last month. The Senate Appropriations Committee did not release AB 256 as planned but instead turned it into a “two-year” bill.

Sponsored by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), 256 would make retroactive the Racial Justice Act of 2020, which was signed into law last January. It was a huge step in addressing institutionalized and implicit racial bias in our criminal courts. It empowered defendants to object to charges, convictions, or punishment if they can show that anyone involved in their case — a judge, attorney, officer, expert witness, or juror — demonstrated bias during the process. It eliminated racial discrimination in criminal cases by prohibiting the state from seeking or upholding a criminal conviction or sentence based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. 

But it didn’t apply retroactively, excluding those convicted before 2021 because of racial bias and discrimination the right to seek relief. 

The RJA was a first-of-its-kind law in California, prohibiting the use of race, ethnicity, or national origin in sentencing and convictions. The passage of AB 256 is crucial to extending civil rights in the courtroom for all people of color impacted by racist convictions and sentencing.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 2021 (SB 300), sponsored by state Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), is also on hold until January in the Assembly. It would limit California’s unjust “felony murder special circumstance” law by prohibiting sentencing to death or life without the possibility of parole a defendant who did not kill or intend that a person should die during the commission of a felony.

SB 300 also addresses the injustice of a mandatory LWOP sentence by restoring judges’ discretion to impose a parole-eligible sentence, should they find it more appropriate. And it provides an avenue for prisoners to petition the court for resentencing, offering recourse to Californians who were unjustly sentenced to LWOP or execution.

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