By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Late on Thursday, Governor Newsom signed into law, AB 256, the California Racial Justice Act for All. When the original bill was signed, one of the compromises is that the look back mechanism for past convictions was removed.
Assemblymember Ash Kalra, however, pledged to close that gap, and the new legislation will allow persons with convictions or judgments prior to January 1, 2021, to petition the court and seek relief if racial bias was proven to be present in their case.
The legislation allows individuals to challenge racial bias in criminal charges, convictions, and sentences.
“When we passed the Racial Justice Act, we did so with a promise to not leave behind those with past criminal convictions and sentences that were tainted by systemic racial bias, both explicit and implicit, in our courts. There is still much work to be done, but now AB 256 will provide a valuable tool to meaningfully address the stark racial disparities in our sentencing history,” said Assemblymember Kalra.
Prior to the Racial Justice Act, proving racial bias was nearly impossible because of the 30-year legal precedent set by McCleskey v. Kemp. With this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court required California defendants in criminal cases to prove intentional discrimination when challenging racial bias in their case. The original Racial Justice Act finally began to address this issue, but unfortunately the bill was narrowed to prospective cases only, excluding those who had already been harmed by the racial bias and discrimination that permeates our criminal legal system.
Ash Kalra told the Vanguard, “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.”
With the signage of AB 256, those with past judgments, sentences and convictions prior to January 1, 2021, can petition the court for retroactive relief based on the following phased-in timeline:
- January 1, 2023: individuals facing deportation or sentenced to death
- January 1, 2024: individuals incarcerated for a felony
- January 1, 2025: others with a felony conviction entered after 2015
- January 1, 2026: all others with a felony conviction
Since enactment, the original Racial Justice Act has demonstrated its impact with successful uses, and notably, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times highlights the need to make the law retroactive. The Times had previously exposed the racist comments of a Los Angeles police detective and based on this officer’s conduct, one individual has already made a successful Racial Justice Act challenge leading to the dismissal of the special circumstance allegations in their case. The Times recently reported, “By August 2021, prosecutors concluded they needed to notify defendants of the detective’s comments in more than 200 past cases in which [the officer] had been listed as a potential witness.” AB 256 will now make the Racial Justice Act applicable in those cases, providing people an opportunity to address the harm caused by the officer’s blatant racism.
“The Racial Justice Act for All becoming California Law shows an ongoing commitment from the state to combat racism. We must continue challenging the legacies of racism in all our institutions, and continue fighting for the freedom and relief of those incarcerated,” said Sarah Rigney, Policy Analyst with Initiate Justice.
“Today, California shows that we will leave no one behind on our path to healing the systemic bias and racism that our highest institutions have inherited. We applaud Governor Newsom for taking this historic step in signing the Racial Justice Act for All to expand civil rights protections to imprisoned Californians, among others. Though bruised by amendments, signing the Racial Justice Act for All into law affirms our state’s core values of embracing inclusivity and rejecting the racism that divides us,” said Derick Morgan, Senior Policy Associate with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“Systemic racism in the criminal legal system has devastated the Black community since its inception. Signing The California Racial Justice Act for All into law will directly confront this injustice, clearing a pathway to begin to address some of the impacts of racism for people currently incarcerated. This bill is a step in the right direction,” said Amber-Rose Howard, Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
“AB 256 reaffirms that racism requires redress. No one should be on death row, deported, or in prison because of racism in our courts,” said Natasha Minsker, Policy Advisor for Smart Justice California.
“The League of Women Voters of California believes that racial discrimination is an evil that must be confronted in every sphere – in voting access, in housing, in education, in employment, and now, at long last, in California’s criminal legal system,” said Executive Director, Stephanie Doute. “Fairness demands that the protections of the Racial Justice Act extend to all Californians, and with the signing of this bill, they finally will.”
“AB 256 represents a critical step forward in the fight against racial bias and discrimination in our criminal legal system,” said Mica Doctoroff, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “AB 256 will help to provide justice to incarcerated Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who have borne the deep, harmful impacts of racism.”
“Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have been plagued by racist policies and overrepresented in our prisons and courts for far too long. For those incarcerated due to racial bias, the Racial Justice Act for All provides a path forward to fight the systemic racism that has contaminated our legal system,” said Fatimeh Khan, California Healing Justice Program Co-Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
Join Ash Kalra on October 13
On October 13, Assemblymember Ash Kalra will be honored by the Vanguard for this seminal legislation. Kalra is one of the featured speakers at the event.
Ash Kalra told the Vanguard, “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.”
Tickets and sponsorships can be purchased online: http://tiny.cc/vanguard_2022