Associated Press, February 9, 2021
California should allow all but death row inmates and those spending life behind bars without the chance of parole to request lighter sentences after they serve at least 15 years, one piece of a dramatic overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws that an advisory committee to Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended Tuesday.
The nation’s most populated state also should limit sentencing enhancements that can add years to prison terms and are imposed with “extreme racial disparities,” the committee said. For example, it said 99% of those given a gang enhancement in Los Angeles County are people of color.
California led the nation in tough-on-crime policies 30 years ago, but in recent years has been among the states at the forefront of easing criminal penalties. Two lawmakers on the committee announced they had put some of the recommendations into legislation that would have to pass the Democratic-led Legislature and be signed into law by Newsom.
“If all 10 recommendations were adopted, they would impact almost every area of California’s criminal legal system, from driving infractions to life in prison, and probably everybody behind bars would be affected in some way,” committee chairman Michael Romano told The Associated Press.
The committee, made up of current and former lawmakers, judges and academics, aimed for broad impact with its unanimous proposals, including addressing racial and economic disparities in traffic tickets, where unpaid fines can turn into a mountain of debt and eventually a jail sentence.
Glen Stailey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the group is concerned “about potential negative impacts on public safety” from some recommendations, while Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California, said committee members are “placing the citizens of California in jeopardy.”
The committee recommended allowing anyone who has served more than 15 years to request their sentence be reconsidered if they can show “continued incarceration is no longer in the interest of justice.”
The committee isn’t trying to end California’s over 150 sentence enhancements. But it says judges should consider dismissing them if the offense isn’t violent; is related to mental health issues, childhood trauma or prior victimization; or is triggered by an old conviction, particularly if someone was a juvenile.
Skinner and Democratic Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager introduced bills limiting enhancements. Skinner’s bill includes the recommendations to judges, while Kamlager’s follows the committee’s suggestion that gang enhancements be restricted to organized, violent criminal enterprises.
Kamlager said she learned while serving on the committee that gang enhancements are often used to increase what otherwise would be misdemeanor charges against people of color.