Package of Criminal Justice Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature

Mass Incarceration

Legislature OK’s final juvenile justice-reform bills updating Miranda rights, parole for child offenders

(From Press Release) – Just weeks after 25,000 people attended a concert here by artist-musician Common to push for common sense justice reforms, the California Legislature approved the final two bills in the #EquityAndJustice package.

Senate Bills 394 and 395, jointly authored by Sens. Ricardo Lara and Senator Holly J. Mitchell, now go to Gov. Brown, and supporters praised the package for its goal to promote prevention, rehabilitation and maintaining family cohesion.

A video with Common posted on Senator Lara’s Facebook page has received more than 35,000 views. In the video, Common tells a group of formerly incarcerated youth and advocates in Lara’s office: “We care about those that are incarcerated, and we care about our young people that we don’t want to end up being put in prison.”

“California’s laws are still stuck in the past when our courts routinely sentenced young people to life without parole and routinely took away all hope of redemption,” Mitchell said. “We know better now, and these bills are part of our movement toward equity and justice.”

Lara agreed.

“Hearing the stories of young people who confessed to crimes they didn’t commit is heartbreaking and should be a wake-up call for our whole justice system,” he said. “SB 395 protects children and
families from the tragedy of false confession and brings our 50-year-old Miranda rights into the 21st century. Young people can take responsibility for their actions and having legal counsel will ensure they understand their rights and uphold our constitutional values in the process.”

SB 394 allows young people sentenced to life without parole to have a parole hearing after 25 years, complying with a recent U.S. Supreme Court case.

SB 395 would require young people to consult with legal counsel before waiving their Miranda rights in a police interrogation. It passed the Senate in May with bipartisan support.

Research shows that young people are much more likely to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and they are less likely to understand their constitutional rights than adults.

Jerome Dixon is one of those young people when he was arrested at age 17 and interrogated for 25 hours. “On the 25th hour I was nothing more but an empty shell of a child, and I caved in and told them what they wanted to hear,” he told KQED radio. He was recently released after 21 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

SB 395 is co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Silicon Valley De-Bug, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the National Center for Youth Law and has support from the California State PTA, Compton Unified School District, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and nearly 30 civil rights and juvenile justice organizations.

The six bills in the #EquityAndJustice package by Lara and Mitchell are:

  • SB 180 – Drug Sentence Enhancements
    This reform measure seeks to put greater emphasis on prevention, rehabilitation and maintaining family cohesion by reducing sentence enhancements for certain low level, nonviolent drug offenses. Status: Passed by Legislature and awaiting action by Governor Brown.
  • SB 190 – Ending Juvenile Fees
    Puts an end to innocent defendants being required to reimburse the courts for the cost of appointed counsel by specifying that this requirement may only be imposed in cases where the defendant is ultimately convicted of a crime. Status: Passed by Legislature and awaiting action by Brown.
  • SB 355 – No Court Fees for the Innocent
    This provides that only those who are convicted of a crime are required to reimburse the courts for legal counsel fees. Status: Brown signed into law on July 10.
  • SB 393 – Sealing of Arrest Records
    This bill would seal arrest records and remove barriers to employment for those arrested but not convicted of a crime. Status: To be voted on the Assembly floor.
  • SB 394 – Juveniles Life Without the Possibility of Parole
    This measure would bring California into compliance with Montgomery v. Louisiana decision that juveniles cannot be sentenced to Life Without Parole. Status: Passed by Legislature and awaiting action by Brown.
  • SB 395 – Miranda Rights for Youth
    This proposal would require those under the age of 18 to consult with legal counsel before they waive their constitutional rights in interrogations with police. Status: Passed by Legislature and awaiting action by Brown.

SB 620 Authorizing Judges to Strike Extreme Sentence Enhancements Approved by the Legislature

(From Press Release) – This afternoon, Senate Bill 620 was once again approved by the Senate, this time for a concurrence vote, following its passage in the Assembly. Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) introduced SB 620 to provide California judges with necessary discretion at sentencing for felony criminal cases in which a firearm was used.

“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,” said Senator Bradford. “We must allow our courts and judges to assess the specifics of each case individually, to ensure justice is served and individuals are held accountable for their involvement based on the severity of the crime they are convicted of.”

Although California judges can use their discretion to dismiss almost every other sentencing enhancement at the time of sentencing or resentencing, state law forbids them from doing so with mandatory firearm enhancements – which come in the form of an additional sentence of 10 years, 20 years, or life. SB 620 eliminates this prohibition and, instead, allows a court to act in the interest of justice to strike or dismiss an enhancement.  This bill is consistent with other California sentence enhancement law and will ensure fairer and more balanced sentencing in our courts.

“Rather than enhancing the sentence of defendants using a broad stroke approach, it is the duty of our courts to mete justice adequately and proportionately through the fair and equitable application of the law,” stated Senator Bradford. “We must provide our judges with the same level of sentencing discretion as we afford district attorneys when filing charges.”

CA Legislature Takes First Step to Challenge Felony Murder Rule

(From Press Release) – On Thursday, the California State Assembly passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 48, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). SCR 48 renews the Legislature’s intent to reform the Felony Murder Rule.

“Due to the Felony Murder Rule California has many inmates serving life sentences for first degree murder despite the fact they did not actually commit a murder,” stated Senator Skinner, “SCR 48 recognizes that punishment should be proportionate to the actual crime.”

Under the Felony Murder Rule, an individual who was, for example, driving the getaway car or present at the scene but was unaware that a killing would take place, or who was in the same circumstance but an unintentional or accidental killing occurred, can be charged with first degree murder. The United States is the only country in the world to use the Felony Murder Rule; the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Hawaii and Michigan have eliminated the Felony Murder Rule from their statutes.

“It’s time to rethink the Felony Murder Rule, which crudely gives an unarmed robber or getaway driver the same sentence as the person who pulls the trigger,” stated Senator Skinner. “To uphold justice, policy makers must review this law, its flaws, and its unintended consequences.”

One of the bill’s sponsors is #cut50 which is a national bipartisan effort to reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails while making our communities safer. Upon the passage of SCR 48, #cut50 stated “The law should treat people both fairly and equally. Unfortunately, California’s Felony Murder Rule does neither. It is unfair to treat people with vastly different levels of culpability the same. And data shows that sentencing in Felony Murder cases is highly unequal for people of color and the poor. To preserve public safety and advance social justice, California must take a close look at its Felony Murder Rule. This Resolution is an important first step in the long march toward reforming California’s Felony Murder Rule.”

SCR 48 is supported by a broad coalition of over twenty criminal justice reform organizations and more than one hundred individuals, including #cut50, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Courage Campaign, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Homeboy Industries, and Youth Justice Coalition.

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