California Legislation Could Provide Avenue for Freedom for Incarcerated Left to Die in Prison

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By The Vanguard

SACRAMENTO, CA – Victims of violence and those who allegedly perpetrated that violence are among those supporting Senate Bill 94 here in the California Legislature—if approved by voters, the bill would allow state inmates who have spent more than three decades incarcerated to have their cases reviewed by a judge and maybe go before a parole board. 

The legislation, according to a Sacramento Bee story, would allow “some life-without-parole-prisoners who committed crimes before June 5, 1990, to petition a judge for lesser sentences.”

But, to be eligible, incarcerated must have served at least 25 years in prison—and only then could be considered for parole if judges grant their petitions.

“Those who are resentenced would not automatically get out of prison. They would have the opportunity to make their cases before a parole board, which could deny them release,” said the Bee, noting the “bill exempts those convicted of killing law enforcement officers, those who committed certain sexual crimes together with murder and those who killed three or more people.”

The Bee piece said California incarcerated “about 95,700 inmates as of July 31, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Only about 5,000 of those prisoners were serving life without parole. About 550 of those inmates would be eligible to petition a judge to change their sentence, according to a Senate bill analysis.”

Bill author Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, and criminal justice reform advocates claims “some eligible prisoners received harsh sentences under a system that may look at their crimes differently today. They say inmates have worked hard to change themselves and atone for their crimes, and they no longer belong in prison.

“If there’s one of those, or two, or four out of 500, then I think we have a compelling reason to create a due process path for them,” Cortese said. “That allows them to make their case. And then it’s up to judges, parole boards and the governor, ultimately, to make a decision.”

The Bee wrote, “Cortese has also pointed out that most inmates eligible for SB 94 would be older upon release — in their fifties, at least. Recidivism rates drop significantly for those released in their fifties and beyond, according to a 2018 CDCR report.

“But opponents, including crime victims and district attorneys, believe life-without-parole inmates already have adequate avenues to seek sentence changes and commutations. They say SB 94 unfairly prioritizes prisoners over victims and lacks provisions requiring inmates to demonstrate remorse for their crimes or that they have rehabilitated themselves.

“SB 94 is unbalanced, in my view, in the administration of the law concerning the process,” said Todd Riebe, Amador County District Attorney. “It’s not concerned with what the victims think, and it’s stacking the deck heavily on the side of the petitioner.”

For now, those serving life without parole have options for seeking resentencing, including an appeal to the governor—Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned more than 1,300 inmates and commuted 285 sentences; Gov. Gain Newsom has only granted 144 pardons, and commuted 123 in half the time as Brown.

The Bee wrote, “Prisoners can also get resentenced through referrals from district attorneys, CDCR, the Attorney General’s Office and county sheriffs,” and while Riebe thinks those resentencing routes are sufficient, Cortese disagrees.

“We have people in prison now … who don’t fit within those other schemes, those other potential procedural remedies,” he said. “This is just the path for those who remain.” 

California lawmakers have spent nearly two decades “trying to rethink stringent sentencing laws from the 1980s and 1990s that led to mass incarceration of Black and brown people,” said the Bee.

“A panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered California to reduce its prison population to alleviate severe overcrowding. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this ruling in 2011. Since that time, the state’s incarcerated population has decreased due to a combination of legislation and ballot initiatives,” the Bee notes.

The newspaper added the “state changed a handful of lower-level crimes to misdemeanors, shifted some inmates to county jails and allowed prisoners to more quickly earn credits for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs. CDCR also released thousands of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent virus transmission.

“One lingering tough-on-crime initiative from 1990, Proposition 115, looms over SB 94. Among other things, Proposition 115 broadened the scope of what is considered felony murder. And those convicted of murder and another felony, known as a ‘special circumstance,’ face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.”

The Bee wrote, “A previous Cortese measure from 2021, Senate Bill 300, would have eliminated the provision requiring a death or life-without-parole sentence for felony murder with special circumstances in cases where the convicted person was not the killer and did not intend to kill. The bill required a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers to alter the initiative, and it died on the Assembly floor. 

SB 94 moved to the Senate floor with 22 votes, just one more than necessary, but it’s on the suspense file in Assembly Appropriations, which will decide whether to advance it to the floor of the Assembly floor Friday.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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