SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBS13/AP) — 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.READ MORE: Boy, 8, Hailed A Hero After Discovering Baby Sister Unresponsive In Pool
To take effect, the recommendations would need to be translated into legislation that passes the Democratic-led Legislature and signed into law by Newsom. Two lawmakers on the committee immediately announced some measures.
“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.
“We can improve public safety and reduce incarceration at the same time,” said Romano, who directs Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, which helped persuade California voters to ease a three-strikes law that was considered the nation’s toughest law targeting repeat offenders.
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.
Members recommended driving without a license and driving with a suspended license based on unpaid fines be reduced from misdemeanors to infractions, with reduced fines and fees.
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Some of California’s largest counties and state lawmakers already have moved in that direction, and former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 ended the suspension of licenses for people who didn’t pay court fees.
The committee heard from major law enforcement groups during eight public hearings.
San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, who spoke on behalf of the state prosecutors’ association, said some recommendations like the traffic offense reductions would be “a positive step forward.” Others, like limiting judges’ discretion on gang enhancements, “could be steps in the wrong direction.”
Glen Stailey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said in a statement that the group is concerned “about potential negative impacts on public safety” from some recommendations, while the California Police Chiefs Association took no immediate position.
“I think they’re placing the citizens of California in jeopardy with the weakening of everything,” said Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California, adding that the recommendations ignore victims.READ MORE: California Allowing Theme Parks, Ball Parks And Stadiums To Reopen With Strict Limits On April 1
The recommendations come in the first report from the California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code created last year. Members stuck to proposals that Democratic lawmakers could pass with a simple majority. They looked for areas where there was broad recognition of problems with the law, said Romano, the committee chairman.
They 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.”
Nearly 30,000 of California’s 114,000 prisoners had served more than 15 years as of last June, according to the report. The committee stopped short of saying the proposal should apply to those on death row or those serving life without parole, which would require legislative supermajorities and approval by voters.
Resentencing would be automatic if law enforcement recommends it because the original sentence was unjust or they say the person demonstrated “exceptional rehabilitative achievement.”
The committee advised sentences of less than a year be served in county jails rather than state prisons because research shows offenders tend to do better if they stay closer to home and benefit from more rehabilitation programs.
About 14,000 people serve less than a year in a state prison annually and sending them to local jails would be a burden, said Cory Salzillo, spokesman for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
“Many jails don’t have the capacity to take on more offenders,” Salzillo said.
Committee members reported that their review of the criminal code found laws that were “badly outdated” or “incoherent.” The state’s robbery law hasn’t been updated since 1872, for instance, while several conflicting provisions govern which inmates should be considered for parole.
Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced legislation updating the robbery statute to create separate misdemeanor charges with lesser penalties for petty thefts unless they involve serious injury or a weapon.
The committee isn’t trying to do away with California’s more than 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 the offender was a juvenile at the time.
Skinner and Democratic Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager each introduced bills limiting enhancements. Skinner’s bill includes the recommendations to judges, while Kamlager’s follows the committee’s recommendation that gang enhancements should be restricted to organized, violent criminal enterprises.
Kamlager said she learned during her time on the committee that gang enhancements are often used to boost what otherwise would be misdemeanor charges against people of color.MORE NEWS: SMUD Again Extends Suspension Of Non-Payment Shutoffs – Now Through June
She said her proposal would limit them to what she said would be “the most serious offenses” and ensure they “are only used when necessary and fair.”