By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Last week the state legislature sent the Governor the expanded Racial Justice Act—when it was first passed in 2020, a legislative compromise removed retroactivity, but this version adds it back it. Late last week, the Vanguard talked with Assemblymember Ash Kalra, the author of both the original legislation and the follow up.
Vanguard: What is your reaction to the legislature passing the follow up to the racial justice act?
Ash Kalra: I’m very excited that we are able to send the Racial Justice Act For All to the governor’s desk. When the original Racial Justice Act was making its way through the legislature, it was devastating for me and the sponsors to have to remove retroactivity. At the time that happened, we promised we would leave no one behind, and we were going to come back for retroactivity. And, and we’ve done that.
Vanguard: Were you originally planning that it was going to get phased in or was that part of the compromise?
Ash Kalra: Well, it’s part of, it was part of the compromise, but it was predictable. The legislative process requires compromise and we know that the cost concerns would be a hindrance for the bill to be able to move forward successfully. So the phase-in is something we figured we would have to do.
Vanguard: So how is this going to work? Is this going to require somebody who was convicted maybe in a way that was questionable to get a lawyer and file a new motion?
Ash Kalra: Yes, it would allow that as well as public defender’s offices can certainly, I hope will be part of going through their cases, particularly given the fact that we phased-in, it will be that much easier, I think, to parse out the cases that would qualify in the first round of the retroactivity. But yeah, then they can at least bring the motion forward and have a judge, and have a court decide if it meets the standards of being set a hearing.
Vanguard: Would a judge then order a new trial?
Ash Kalra: They still have to have a hearing and determine whether there was a violation of the Racial Justice Act and then if they believe it did, the court will follow through on the next steps, whether it’s a new trial or re-resentencing.
Vanguard: What are kind of some key examples of cases that you think are ripe to kind of come back?
Ash Kalra: I think it’s a lot, I think when it comes to retroactivity, I think challenges on sentencing will likely be the most prevalent type of hearings. That’s again just in my opinion, just based upon the fact that we see how sentencing really plays out in terms of biases. And I think once there’s data on the aggregate sentences that different populations get, I think that the there’ll be an opportunity to really challenge a lot of the sentencings that were handed down over the years that really show that racial biases seeped its way so deeply into our system.
Vanguard: In terms of the current law that that’s already on the books, what impact have you already seen from that?
Ash Kalra: Well, I’m hearing a lot from my public defender friends that it really is making a difference. They’re having the opportunity to make claims. And I know that there are cases making their way through the appellate system as well. I’ve written and signed onto a couple Amicus briefs and support of the actions on behalf of the defendants. But ultimately, as I’ve always said, the Racial Justice Act is really about long-term behavior change and law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys look in the mirror and really think about how they’re proceeding with cases, with that racial lens because clearly the discrepancies are so deep and have been happening for so long. But when you’re in the system, it’s sometimes hard to see it unless you really are intentional about it, particularly because no one wants to, wants to believe that they’re racist. But the thing about systemic racism is that it’s not about individual action it’s about the fact that the norm gets so entrenched that you can’t imagine, a world outside of it. And so in order to imagine that world removing racism, we have to all take a step back and see in what manner have we contributed to it. And in what manner can we heal?
Vanguard: Do you need to do further legislation or are you kind of waiting and seeing?
Ash Kalra: We’ll wait and see. I think given the nature of the initial Racial Justice Act, it’s of such a significance that I imagine a follow up legislation at some point may be necessary, but it’s likely to come through experience. And so as more of the months and years go by, we’ll see if there are any technical changes that would need to be applied, but I don’t see anything major. I think that it would be some strictly technical fixes based upon an experiences from judges and attorneys.
Vanguard: Do you have any indication if the governor’s going to sign this?
Ash Kalra: I imagine he would. I have been working with the Department of Justice a lot in amending the bill and discussing finances and what have you. So it’s been a cooperative process. So I’m hopeful, given the fact that the governor so enthusiastically signed the original Racial Justice Act, that retroactivity would be a no brainer for the administration.
Vanguard: Was there any pushback against this one, any opposition that you weren’t really anticipating?
Ash Kalra: Not that I wasn’t anticipating. We know the DAs aren’t fans of the Racial Justices Act or of retroactivity. But like I said, the good news is that we’re seeing more and more prosecutors on board. This is about a generational change in those doing the work. And so I think that if you talk to younger prosecutors, that they’re more inclined to be supportive, and I think that, and as years go on, we’ll get more and more support from the prosecutors.
Vanguard: Describe how big a deal the Racial Justice Act is from your perspective.
Ash Kalra: The Racial Justice Act is landmark legislation, and making it retroactive was critical. I couldn’t have imagined of being a part of that, let alone authoring legislation like this during the years I was working as a public defender, if I had a legislative career. Gratefully, I’ve had dozens of bills, I’ve had dozens of meaningful bills signed to law, but if this is the only thing I was able to accomplish. I think it would be a career well spent.