Series of New Laws Overhauls California’s Criminal Justice System

By Alfonso Serrano Oct 04, 2018

In a series of moves that further distances California’s criminal justice system from punitive incarceration policies, Governor Jerry Brown this week signed several measures aimed at reversing prison overcrowding and the criminalization of people of color.

Among the measures signed into law is Senate Bill 1393, which gives judges more discretion when handing down sentences for serious felony convictions. Previously, judges were required to add an additional five years to convictions, even when they believed those punishments were unwarranted.

“This new law is a crucial step in ending the mandatory use of failed and punitive policies from California’s tough on crime era," said Eunisses Hernández, a policy coordinator at nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the bill along with a coalition of service providers and racial justice groups.

Social justice groups also pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 1437, which reduces the liability of accomplices to homicide. The measure limits judges’ ability to use the "felony murder rule," which holds people criminally liable for murder if it occurs during felonies like robberies and burglaries. Under the new law, a person can only be convicted for murder if they were the actual killer or aided and abetted the actual killer.

“The law is not fairly applied," state Senator Nacy Skinner (D-Berkeley) told the Sacramento Bee. “If it were universally applied to any and every person that was in or around a crime that resulted in a homicide, then many more people would have been charged with felony murder and the statute would have been changed a long time ago. What we see from data is that it’s young people, low-income people and people of color who are Black and Brown that are more often charged with felony murder."

The measures signed by Brown come in the wake of ballot initiatives approved by California voters in 2014 and 2016 that reduced penalties for low-level crimes and legalized recreational marijuana. Proposition 47, approved in 2014, reduced sentences for some drug possesion felonies, while Proposition 64 in 2016, besides legalizing cannabis use, eliminated some marijuana-related crimes. While the measure applied retroactively to marijuana convictions, it did not provide a system to erase convictions or reduce felonies to misdemeanors. 

Assembly Bill 1793, signed by Brown this week, expands on Prop. 64 by requiring courts to automatically expunge past cannabis-related criminal convictions, including felony marijuana convictions.

The slew of measures signed this week represent an about face for Brown, who, during his first stint as governor in the 1970s, signed measures that created mandatory sentences and increased sentences for other crimes—and which are attributed with bloating the state’s incarcerated population.

The bills signed this week were generally hailed by prison reform advocates who have pressed for more equality and racial justice in criminal and sentencing guidelines. That includes praise for Senate Bill 1391, which prevents children under age 16 from being tried as adults.

Brown acknowledged the racial disparities present in the state’s criminal justice system. In a statement, he said he was moved to sign Senate Bill 1391 due to “the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes.”