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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Criminal justice reform panel wins legislative victory

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By Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters

This became the last attempt to dramatically revise the California Penal Code—twelve books stored in the Stanford University library. No passed law, no chapter law.

Half a century later, Michael Romano, chairman of the newly formed California Committee on Penal Code Revision, laid the books on his desk.

“I want to say that this is my iceberg that I’m trying to get around,” said Stanford Law School professor Romano.

Months after recommending 10 changes to California’s penal code, Romano’s committee has moved away from docking its work in the college library.

Less than two years after its formation, the committee has put forward more than half of its recommendations. Six of the committee’s resolutions ended in passed legislation that now awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature or veto.

The seven-member group of current lawmakers, academics and judges is charged with recommending ways to “simplify and rationalize” criminal law and procedures, improve parole and probation, and find alternatives to prison.

California’s complex criminal justice code is being rewritten bit by bit, despite some opposition from the California District Attorneys Association and several police groups.

California once proudly wore the badge of a tough-crime state. But after imprisoning more than 170,000 people at their peak in 2006, things have changed. Over the past decade, voters, legislators and governors have weighed in on policies to reduce California’s prison population, changing state laws.

In 2019, the Legislature decided that it wanted to take a comprehensive look at the penal code.

Romano likened the existing penal code to “a sort of tangled hair bun of statutes and regulations and rules that apply throughout the state, not always consistently.”

Changes in language, removed sentences and new definitions may appear insignificant, but seemingly small modifications could eventually result in the resentence and release of thousands of Californians, and more people away from punishment in state prisons than ever before. can be done.

While this strategic approach is celebrated by many justice reform advocates, it also frustrates those who argue that the state is being too soft on crime, such as homicide and increasing assault.

In 2020, homicides in California reached their highest level in a decade. The escalation of assaults rose to a 10-year high, according to data from the state Department of Justice. The rise in killings is a part of a broader national trend.

“Some of these proposals are actually being advanced or approved at great risk to the public,” said Greg Totten, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. “It’s not reform, it’s reckless.”

When the committee released its report earlier this year, some organizations expressed concern. Glen Staley, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, told the Associated Press that the union was “concerned about the potential negative impacts on public safety.”

Many of the committee’s recommendations targeted sentencing and release, while others focused on court procedures.

Among the bills that went to the governor:

“There is no single bill that will prove to be a panacea and deliver the change we need to see,” said Anne Irwin of Smart Justice California, a justice reform group. “This year, like this year, will take several years with many very precise bills, each addressing a particular failure of the system.”

The committee is mostly appointed by the governor, and two seats are appointed by the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate.

Committee members work closely with the governor’s office and legislators, providing data and research to lawmakers to enact legislation. And while many of his proposals were winded through the Legislature, that was not the case for everything.

Los Angeles Democratic Assembly member Sidney Kamalagar speaks on the floor on the last day of the 2019-20 legislative session, August 31, 2020. She was the inaugural member of the Committee to Investigate the Penal Code, and wrote a controversial bill on gang escalation. . (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

One of the most controversial was the issue of gang enhancement, which adds time to people suspected of being in a gang. The bill, authored by then-assembly member Kamalagar, would raise the standard for prosecutors and redefine how the law determines a gang.

Kamalagar was one of the inaugural members of the committee before being sworn in as a state senator earlier this year after a special election.

Gang escalation has long been controversial. Some, including Kamalagar and criminal justice researchers, see them as a punishment that has been administered disproportionately across California, often targeting black and Latino people sentenced under gang escalation 92. % are responsible for the people. In Los Angeles County, approximately 98% of people sentenced to prison for a gang escalation are people of color, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Kamalagar said that the bill to increase his gang came out of the work he had done with the committee. She said she hopes the changes to the penal code will “take out some of these processes and try to put a little more fairness in them.”

The District Attorney’s Association and Kamalagar had negotiated the language of the bill months ago. But days before it went up for vote last month, the association urged lawmakers to vote for it.

“Prosecutors and law enforcement across California are united in their view that AB 333 is little more than a gift to violent criminal street gangs,” Association President Vern Pearson said in an email.

The bill was passed a day later, with no votes left.

Recalling the experience, Kamalagar called it “terrible”.

“I think law-and-order groups are doubling down,” she said. “I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult as we move forward.”

The District Attorneys Association did not drop its protest, calling the passage of the bill “illegitimate” in a September 17 letter to the governor.

In this session, the writers brought out several bills after high-profile crimes. A bill by Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley to downgrade some petty thefts to crimes did not make it out of the Senate after protests citing a string of robberies in the Bay Area. Skinner sits on the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, and the bill was one of its recommendations.

Van Nuys Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg also pulled a motion for a statewide bail program after the September murder of a Sacramento woman who was released without bail.

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