In early February, California’s Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code submitted its first annual report, presenting 10 recommendations for revising the state’s criminal laws. The committee was established in 2020 by Governor Newsom and the state legislature, as a first step toward large-scale reform of a law code that is largely decades old.
Reduce Overcrowding of Incarcerational Facilities
California’s institutional prison population is nearly 115,000 inmates—more than 130% of the number facilities were built to house—and some 12% of inmates serve less than a year. By reducing the number of offenses punishable by incarceration, and by making more local-jail space available for short-term sentences, committee recommendations aim to reduce problems associated with overcrowding and with moving inmates far away from their families.
Reduce Racial Disparities
Committee recommendations aim to reduce systemic bias that abets unjust treatment due to race. In California, non-white races represent 60% of the general population, but 74% of the incarcerated population. In much of greater Los Angeles, 99 percent of gang enhancements (additional punishments added to criminal sentences if the crime was committed in association with a street gang) involve defendants of color, and are often used to turn misdemeanor charges into felony convictions. Meanwhile, 2020 legal efforts to reduce police violence—which also affects minorities disproportionately—stalled in the face of law-enforcement opposition.
Bring Understanding of Current Needs up to Date
Committee members found that many California laws were long outdated (one robbery law had been on the books, unchanged, since 1872). Committee recommendations aim to bring law-enforcement practices in line with the needs of 21st-century society, including new understandings of human rights.
1. Eliminate incarceration and reduce fines and fees for certain traffic offenses.
Reasoning: Driving without a license, or with a license suspended due to unpaid legal fines or delinquency on court appearances, does not prove a person is an unsafe driver. Fines and incarcerations imposed for such offenses, which frequently involve extenuating circumstances, only cause more difficulties for those struggling with severe economic limitations.
2. Require that short prison sentences be served in county jails.
Reasoning: Evidence clearly indicates that when people serve one-year-or-less sentences in county jails, recidivism rates are lower and public-safety outcomes better than when the same sentences are served in state prisons.
3. End mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
Reasoning: For many nonviolent offenses, the outcomes are far better when offenders are sentenced to probation rather than incarceration; hence, the best solution is to provide consistent standards for judging probation eligibility.
4. Establish that low-value thefts without serious injury or use of a weapon are misdemeanors.
Reasoning: Current procedure is to punish theft as a violent felony regardless of whether actual violence was involved. This is unfair, ignores extenuating circumstances, and increases problems related to jail overcrowding.
5. Provide guidance for judges considering sentence enhancements.
Reasoning: Allowing judges to make enhancement decisions “in furtherance of justice” is vague and arbitrary, and invites inconsistency in application due to unconscious biases.
6. Limit gang enhancements to the most dangerous offenses.
Reasoning: The current system fails to adequately define “criminal street gang” or distinguish between serious and minor offenses. As a result, enhancements are applied arbitrarily at individual discretion, which disproportionately harms minorities and people of color.
7. Retroactively apply sentence enhancements previously repealed by the Legislature.
Reasoning: The elimination of unfair sentence enhancements in recent years applies only to new cases. Those already serving time for enhancements involving earlier offenses have a right to equal treatment.
8. Equalize custody credits for people who committed the same offenses, regardless of where or when they are incarcerated.
Reasoning: Inmate credits for “good conduct” are inconsistent depending on whether the person in question is housed in a jail, prison, or state hospital. People sentenced for similar offenses should receive identical credits (retroactively if necessary) regardless of where they are housed.
9. Clarify parole suitability standards to focus on risk of future violent or serious offenses.
Reasoning: Parole hearings need consistent standards to work from, if they are to guarantee the best interests and safety of the public and of parolees.
10. Establish judicial process for “second look” resentencing.
Reasoning: “Second look” policies (reviewing and revising the sentences of incarcerated people under recommendation of law enforcement authorities) should be clarified and expanded for increased effectiveness.
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