By Mano Raju
“In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a shortened legislative session, and a powerful national grassroots movement demanding systemic change in the criminal legal system, my office was proud to support, and advocate on behalf of, a number of statewide bills this session in collaboration with justice advocates across the state.
I am pleased that Governor Newsom has signed several bills which will significantly impact the lives of justice-involved people and their families, especially in this time of national reckoning over racism and state violence. I am also grateful to the amazing advocates, many of whom are directly impacted by the criminal legal system themselves, who have worked tirelessly in the fight for justice for years. My office is proud and humbled to work alongside all of you.
I am committed to continuing the efforts to hold law enforcement more accountable, redirecting funding from the criminal legal system to community services and families, and reducing the cost of people remaining in touch with their incarcerated loved ones across the state.
ROOTING OUT RACISM IN THE CRIMINAL LEGAL SYSTEM
My office was a strong supporter of the California Racial Justice Act, AB 2542, authored by Assemblymember Ash Kalra – a former public defender. Governor Newsom signed this bill which prohibits the state from seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction, or from imposing a sentence, based upon race, ethnicity or national origin.
Public defenders are keenly aware of the need to root out racial discrimination at every level of society, and particularly in the criminal legal system where it robs people of their rights and livelihoods in courtrooms every day. AB 2542 strengthens our ability to defend people and ensure convictions are not based on racial or ethnic bias.
SHORTER PROBATION PERIODS
Another bill signed into law that stands to have a major impact on our clients, their families, and the state as a whole is Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager’s bill AB 1950. This bill will reduce the length of probation periods. This bill will allow people to more quickly move forward with their lives and reduce the risk of added jail time for minor “technical violations.” This also means people with criminal records will be eligible to have their records cleared faster, which will help open the door to jobs, housing and educational opportunities.
When people on probation are needlessly sent to jail for “technical violations” – like missing a meeting because they had to work or go to the hospital – it is a tremendous setback to their progress and comes at a high cost to our state. By shortening probation periods, AB 1950 gives justice-involved people a better chance of exiting the revolving door of the legal system permanently.
INCREASING JURY DIVERSITY
The Governor signed two bills that will have a positive impact on our ability to seat more diverse juries, which should lead to decisions that are more likely to be fair and trusted by our communities.
AB 3070, authored by Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber, will prohibit using a peremptory challenge to remove a prospective juror on the basis of the prospective juror’s race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, or religious affiliation.
As public defenders, it is devastating to see clients take unwarranted plea deals simply because they don’t think they can get a fair trial when nobody on the jury looks like them. Prosecutors have used thinly veiled tactics to eliminate jurors of color for things such as having a justice-involved family member or living in a certain neighborhood. AB 3070 seeks to root out implicit and intentional bias that too often prevents us from seating a jury of one’s peers.
SB 592, authored by Senator Scott Wiener, will broaden the pool of eligible jurors by adding state tax filers to the list that jury commissioners use when assembling jury pools.
We need to do everything we can to ensure more racially- and economically-diverse juries to protect people’s rights and enhance the fairness of our legal system. By expanding jury pools to include anyone who files taxes in California, SB 592 will move us closer to seating juries who represent a true cross-section of society.
The Governor signed SB 823, an historic budget trailer bill for youth justice that will close the Department of Juvenile Justice, California’s statewide youth prison system.
Our office has been a national leader in keeping youth out of prison and taking a holistic approach to working with youth and their families. When we offer solid alternatives that provide a strong path to rehabilitation, judges know that it’s the right thing to do. SB 823 responsibly dismantles the DJJ and shifts funding to counties to develop better ways to support families and youth development rather than perpetuate ineffective punishment.
Additionally, the Governor signed SB 1290, co-authored by Senators Durazo and Mitchell, to vacate debts incurred by having contact with the juvenile justice system before January 2018, when many of the associated costs became illegal.
Having a child become justice-involved can be one of the scariest and most stressful things a family can face, and the debt that often results from such contact can harm families long after a case is resolved. SB 1290 gives young people and their families the debt forgiveness they deserve.
Governor Newsom also signed Assemblymember Rob Bonta’s bill, AB 3228, which empowers people to hold private prison operators accountable for their rampant abuse. During the pandemic, our Immigration Defense Unit discovered that GEO Group – a multi-billion dollar corporation that contracts with ICE to run immigrant detention facilities – boldly lied about their willingness and ability to protect people’s lives.
We desperately need to end the use of private detention, which elevates profits above the safety and humanity of the people in their custody. AB 3228 gives those who have been harmed by for-profit civil detention and criminal facilities the ability to seek justice against these private corporations that violate their contracts.
AB 3234, authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting, will help reduce the incarcerated population in California. This bill enhances the authority of a superior court judge to offer diversion programs to people with pending criminal charges. It will also amend the Elderly Parole Program, lowering the eligibility age from 60 to 50 years old, and the minimum amount of continuous incarceration served on their sentence before they are eligible from 25 years to 20 years.
I am disappointed that Governor Newsom vetoed our bill, SB 555 by Senator Holly Mitchell. This bill would have provided important financial relief to families of incarcerated loved ones by capping the cost of phone calls and video communications, and would have reduced mark-ups on commissary items in county jails across the state. Allowing telecom companies to price gouge incarcerated people and their families is simply wrong – especially when so many people in jails are already low-income. In San Francisco, we’ve been able to make jail calls free, and I am committed to getting this done on the state level. I appreciate the Governor’s commitment to working on this with our office, and look forward to implementing this critical reform alongside him.
Mano Raju is the Elected Public Defender in San Francisco
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