By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Capitol Bureau
SACRAMENTO – California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a series of largely unheralded – but key – bills this week creating new laws that mostly benefit either the incarcerated, or those threatened with jail and others who have done their time. Lawmakers aid the measures will also benefit the public in terms of safety, and taxpayer savings.
Here is a summary:
SB 310 (Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley), also known as the “the right to a jury of your peers” bill, allows those with prior felony convictions to serve on juries.
“It’s easy to take for granted the notion of a jury of your peers, but in reality, if you’re Black and a man, it’s almost impossible. Why? Existing law excludes 30% of California’s Black male residents from ever serving on a jury,” Skinner said. “SB 310 rights that wrong by giving those with a former felony conviction the ability to be at the heart of a fair and impartial judicial process.”
Under SB 310, California will join with more than 20 other states that allow people with prior felony convictions to serve on juries. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, and Oregon allow people to serve without restrictions.
Under the new California law, unless they are on parole or probation or a registered felony sex offender, persons with a prior felony conviction will be eligible to serve on a jury. With the signing of SB 310, California leaves Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma as the only states with lifetime bans for people with felony convictions from ever serving on a jury.
Sponsors claims SB 310 also does not interfere with the ability of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges to reject jurors based on their assessment of suitability. And it does not prohibit the use of a preemptory challenge to remove a prospective juror from the jury pool.
“As a Black man and public defender, I have witnessed firsthand the damage caused by the systemic exclusion of people with felony convictions from jury service,” said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who testified at the Capitol in favor of SB 310.
Woods added: “This bill is a historic step toward achieving racial equity in California. Finally, we are closer to getting juries of our peers, but there is still more work to accomplish. With SB 310, we will no longer have a jury system that shuts the door on many Californians. I can now tell my Black clients that their peers will not be excluded from serving because of something that has occurred in their past.”
AB 45 (Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay) bans California state prisons and county jails from charging incarcerated people copayments for medical and dental visits, and from charging for medically necessary equipment, including artificial limbs, dentures, hearing aids, artificial eyes.
Sacramento County was subject of a class action suit because of charging prisoners, many just awaiting trial, for medically necessary services.
“Our prison system is based off of exploitation of labor, and these incarcerated individuals make pennies on the hour. An incarcerated individual will have to work over 60 hours while making 8 cents an hour to be able to afford a medical visit,” said Stone. “AB 45 will remove this barrier and ensure that incarcerated individuals receive the care that they deserve.”
Stone added that Incarcerated people enter prison with disproportionately high rates of poverty, substance abuse issues and mental illness relative to the non-incarcerated population. While in prison, he said, the state has an obligation to provide health services to its incarcerated individuals, noting that inmates are forced to decide if they want to spend their last few dollars to request medical care, purchase basic hygiene supplies, or stay in touch with their loved ones.
Stone maintains that this barrier to care can have serious consequences including the exacerbation of minor conditions until they are serious or chronic, and the spread of infectious diseases.
Proponents of the measure charge that California has charged incarcerated people a copay—five dollars in prison and three dollars in most jails—to access medical, mental, or dental care, in addition to fees for medical equipment such as glasses and dentures.
They claim that people in prison earn pennies per hour, and a five-dollar copay for them is the equivalent of a more than six hundred-dollar copay for someone making minimum wage. Meanwhile, people in jail earn nothing for their labor.
Citing public health concerns, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) voluntarily decided to eliminate copays in state prisons earlier this year. AB 45 will make the CDCR’s decision state law.
SB 72 (Sen. Thomas Umberg, D-Santa Ana), allows eligible Californians to register to vote and cast a ballot at all polling sites on Election Day, starting with the 2020 election. California joins 13 other states and the District of Columbia in making Election Day registration available at polling sites to voters.
Raúl Macías, Voting Rights Project Manager and Attorney with ACLU of California, commented: “Today cements another victory in the long-fought battle to strengthen voting rights and voter participation in California.”
The ACLU noted that the right to vote is a core tenet of U.S. democracy, “but for far too long, barriers to voter participation have locked too many people out of our democratic process – particularly Black and Brown, low-income, young voters, and voters with disabilities.
“By making Election Day registration available at every polling site in the state, SB 72 will increase voter engagement for eligible voters who are eager to cast a vote, but who were unable to register or update their registration by the deadline, the ACLU said.
SB 394 (Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley) allows a parent or guardian charged with a nonserious, nonviolent crime to instead of being jailed participate in a pretrial caregiver diversion program if both the judge and the prosecutor agree.
“SB 394 is a commonsense reform,” Skinner said. “When incarceration separates a child from their parent, the outcomes for the child are rarely good. Kids often end up in foster care, with the absence of strong family ties impacting children’s physical, emotional, and psychological health. SB 394 will improve kids’ lives.”
SB 394 also states that a child’s separation from a parent can inflict long-lasting negative impacts on parents, and parents separated from their children can suffer similar physical, emotional, and psychological problems and often have difficulty reestablishing the parental bond.
“Pediatricians witness first-hand the trauma and harm to the health and well-being of children when they are separated from parents who are incarcerated. We are thrilled that Gov. Newsom, consistent with his priority of giving each California child the start in life that they deserve, has signed Sen. Skinner’s evidence-based and thoughtful measure to provide alternatives to prison for parents and caregivers that will keep families together and our communities safe,” said Kris Calvin, CEO, American Academy of Pediatrics, California.
Under SB 394, the pretrial diversion program is optional: The presiding judge, district attorney, and public defender all have to agree to establish it in a county. A county’s diversion program might include rehabilitative offerings such as mental health, drug/alcohol treatment, anger management, vocational, educational, and job training services.
A person would only be eligible for diversion if they are the parent or legal guardian of a minor, live in the same household as the child, provide care or financial support, and can substantiate that their absence in the child’s life would be detrimental to the child. The court must also be satisfied that the parent/caregiver does not pose a threat to public safety.
The program would only be available to people charged with a misdemeanor or a nonserious, nonviolent felony. A judge must agree that the person is suitable for the program. In addition, a person would not be eligible if the alleged crime was committed against the custodial child.
The defendant does not perform satisfactorily in the diversion program, the prosecuting attorney or probation department may ask the court to reinstate criminal proceedings, or the court may do so on its own. If the parent/caregiver completes the program successfully, the court will dismiss their original criminal charges.
AB 965 (Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay) allows incarcerated individuals who were under the age of 26 at the time of their controlling offense to benefit from the opportunities provided under Proposition 57.
“Proposition 57 expanded credit earning opportunities so that incarcerated people could earn time off their parole dates by working toward rehabilitation. Unfortunately, people with youth offender hearing dates have been excluded,” said Stone. “These credits will incentivize incarcerated individuals to take advantage of programs that will reduce their parole hearing date, prepare them to succeed beyond incarceration and make the institution safer.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation only allows credits earned under Proposition 57 to be applied to the parole hearing date that a person was initially sentenced with, and will not allow credits to be applied to youth offender hearing dates. Therefore, youth offenders are not incentivized to participate in rehabilitative programs with the potential of going home early.
For example, if someone under the age of 26 is sentenced to 100 years, they will be eligible for a youthful parole hearing after serving 25 years. However, they can only apply their credits towards the original 100 year sentence, not the 25 year youthful parole hearing date.
Stone said AB 965 will allow youth offenders to access the hope and incentives for rehabilitation created by Prop 57 credits that other incarcerated people have been benefiting from. This, he said, will incentivize those who were under 26 when convicted to dedicate themselves to rehabilitation, making it far more likely that they will be rehabilitated and ready for release when the time comes for them to go in front of the Board of Parole Hearings.
“As lead proponents of Proposition 57, which authorized California prisons to award time credits to people in prison in order to incentivize good behavior and rehabilitation, we are grateful that our legislature continues to support the spirit and intent of Prop 57, and bring hope and opportunities for redemption in prisons that will ultimately make our communities healthier and safer,” said Frankie Guzman, Director of the California Youth Justice Initiative for the National Center for Youth Law.
SB 136 (Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco) repeals a one-year sentence enhancement added to an individual’s base sentence for each prior prison or felony jail term served, leading to mass incarceration – SB 136 is only the second time that a California sentence enhancement has been repealed.
Proponents of the measure said the bill “dismantles a cruel, expensive, and ineffective sentence enhancement that adds an extra year to an individual’s base sentence for each prior prison or felony jail term they already served.”
“Today’s action reaffirms California’s commitment to ending mass incarceration. California led the way in building new prisons and exploding prison populations. As a result, taxpayers have paid dearly, and communities have been torn apart,” said Wiener.
“We need to hold people accountable for their behavior, but that doesn’t mean destroying people’s lives. California has a laundry list of nearly 150 sentence enhancements. We don’t need this one. I want to thank the Governor for getting it,” he added.
“Our coalition has been doing work to reduce the state’s budget on Corrections for the last 15 years. Draconian sentencing policies, like enhancements for prior convictions, have been key in filling the 33 prisons we have in California, wasting resources and tearing families apart,” said Amber-Rose Howard, Statewide Coordinator at Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
“Repealing this enhancement means curbing California’s prison spending by millions of dollars each year and an increased opportunity to release state dollars to community-based care that keeps families together,” Howard said.
The coalition said that currently, if an individual is convicted of a felony and has previously served time in jail or prison for a prior felony, a one-year enhancement can be tacked onto their current sentence, often stacked on top of long base sentences and other enhancements, adding:
“Consistent with disparities at every other stage of the criminal legal system, individuals, communities, and families of color are also disproportionately burdened by the one-year enhancement. Research has shown that these enhancements do not help deter individuals from committing crimes, do not reduce recidivism, and do not increase community safety. Instead, these enhancements fuel mass incarceration and put a significant financial burden on taxpayers and families statewide.”
“This is about moving towards more justice for incarcerated people and their families, and righting the wrongs from California’s draconian sentencing laws that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities,” said Emily Harris, Interim Policy Manager of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“We know that this one-year sentence enhancement does not make our communities safer or deter crime, but tears families apart. Reining in this enhancement will help ease the emotional and economic toll that this has taken on incarcerated Californians and their loved ones.”
“Every year a parent spends incarcerated causes significant trauma to their child. Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, school absenteeism/drop out, poverty, homelessness, and physical health problems. We are proud to have the support of Governor Newsom on SB 136, it’s divestment from punishment,” said Romarilyn Ralston, Policy Director with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
“The majority of incarcerated women have children under the age of 18. Every year a mother spends away from a child has layers of collateral consequences. I am proud to be part of this historic effort and know our incarcerated mothers will be returned to their children sooner rather than later,” Ralston said.