California panel urges changes to reduce criminal sentences

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FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, inmates wait to enter their assigned cell block after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. An advisory committee to Gov. Gavin Newsom says California should allow all but death row inmates and those serving life-without-parole to request lighter sentences after serving at least 15 years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – 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.

"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 that driving without a license and driving with a suspended license based on unpaid fines be reduced from misdemeanors to infractions, with lower fees.

Some of California's largest counties 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.

San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, who spoke to the committee for 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 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 recommendations are 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.

But even against the backdrop of nationwide protests over racial injustice, influential police organizations last year derailed efforts in California to limit the use of rubber bullets and penalize officers with bad records.

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.”

Nearly 30,000 of California's 114,000 prisoners had served more than 15 years as of last June, the report said. 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 says the original sentence was unjust or the person has 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 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 found some laws were badly outdated, including a robbery law that hasn't changed since 1872.

Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner introduced legislation updating it 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 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.

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.”

Separately Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Dave Cortese introduced a measure expanding a 2018 law that limits felony murder charges to people who actively participate in a killing. It would remove the mandatory penalty of death or life without parole for those convicted of felony murder with a special circumstance.