The recently completed California legislative session continued a yearslong effort to lower criminal sentences, ease restrictions on suspects, and keep juveniles out of adult prisons despite objections that the moves could harm public safety.
From a nation-leading reform measure that eliminates cash bail to restrictions on trying juveniles, a major goal of Democratic lawmakers this year was to limit mass incarceration that supporters say often disproportionately affects women, youth and minorities.
“All these bills are coming to you because it’s time for us to rectify a system that’s been proven to not work, to not rehabilitate adults, and that’s been completely discriminatory” to minorities, said Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles-area Democrat.
Lara successfully argued for a bill prohibiting 14- and 15-year-olds from being sent to adult prisons even for crimes like murder, arson and robbery.
The California District Attorneys Association is urging Brown to veto the bill. It could set dangerous killers free at 25 with little opportunity to keep even the most threatening locked up, the group argues.
Prosecuting people younger than 16 in adult court should be rare, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said, but judges should have that discretion in the most serious cases.
Schubert and other DAs came to Sacramento last week to urge Brown to reject the bill and to highlight the case of Daniel Marsh, who was 15 in 2013 when he murdered and mutilated an elderly couple in Davis.
“This was not a crime of passion or juvenile impulse. It was a well-planned and executed random act of violence,” said Mary Northup, the daughter of one of Marsh’s victims. “This is the exception that proves (the bill) SB1391 would unleash a violent criminal on our society.”
Brown, a former state attorney general, hasn’t indicated how he will act.
Lawmakers also vastly expanded the number of criminal suspects who can be diverted to mental health treatment programs and have their charges dismissed, but weeks later bowed to critics with a revised bill excluding those charged with murder, rape and other sex crimes.
Other bills sent to Brown include restricting the state’s felony murder rule that holds accomplices to the same standard as the person who carried out the killing. Critics say the rule has been disproportionately used against poor and minority offenders as well as youths and women who are more likely to be accomplices.
“It goes too far. It at this point is nothing short of shocking and an affront to public safety,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. The felony murder bill “will result in the release of murderers, absolutely no question about it,” she said, as judges and juries try to sort out who pulled the trigger.
Brown already signed a bill that in October 2019 will end cash bail for suspects awaiting trial. Suspects will instead be held or freed based on the likelihood they’ll return to court and the degree of danger they pose to the public.
California Bail Agents Association lobbyist David Quintana said he’s confident that voters will support overturning the measure on the 2020 ballot.
“All these criminal justice bills that have passed in the last couple of years are really having a cumulative effect on how the public perceives their safety,” Quintana said.
Yet California voters have generally been supportive of reform efforts, easing criminal penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014 and allowing earlier parole for inmates in a 2016 ballot measure. They’ll weigh in again in 2020 on an initiative that seeks to roll back portions of those two earlier measures.
Republican Assemblywomen Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore said lawmakers are favoring criminals over victims as she argued against a bill that would have restricted enhanced sentences for most convicts.
“We have passed quite enough soft-on-crime, pro-criminal bills this year alone,” she said. “Stop race-baiting and talk about the real issue, and maybe for once here someone can talk about the victims.”
Research shows that criminal justice laws indeed disproportionately affect minority populations, said University of California, Irvine, criminologist Keramet Reiter, while several researchers also have found little link between any increase in crime rates and the easing of laws.
State justice officials reported in July that violent crime in California increased 1.5 percent last year compared with 2016 while property crime dropped 2 percent over the same year.
In a rare loss, legislators facing a barrage of law enforcement opposition shelved for the year a scaled-back bill that would have toughened the standard for when police can use deadly force.
Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego introduced the legislation shortly after Sacramento police shot and killed an unarmed black man, 22-year-old Stephon Clark, while searching for someone breaking into vehicles. The killing unleashed angry protests in the capital city.
A coalition including the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, ACLU of California, Anti Police-Terror Project, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice and Youth Justice Coalition L.A. criticized lawmakers for not doing more.
“Every day that goes by without changing the standard for when police can use deadly force, is a day that another person will be unjustly killed in California,” they said.