California Legislation to Watch in 2021: Criminal Justice Reform

(Photo: Caroline Johnson)

Although the uprisings of 2020 and ensuing critiques of the criminal legal system failed to inspire the California Legislature to pass meaningful reforms last year, a new, robust round of bills awaits decisions before the 2021 session ends on September 10.

Even though there are many bills, some of which propose far-reaching reforms, we’re watching the Legislature’s sense of urgency falter as the session moves forward. Without enough public pressure, both chambers are starting to quietly shelve a lot of strong bills by failing to bring them up for a vote. As recently as August 16, we watched as the Senate Appropriations Committee sent several good bills to the suspense file, which can serve as a quiet way to kill a bill without recording a vote. Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles proceeds in the opposite direction to criminalize homelessness, showing that without replacing the economic system based on corporate profit, any rights we win will constantly be under threat of repeal. 

Now is the time to remind our representatives that we are paying attention, that we urgently need drastic changes to the criminal legal system, and that we need to see definitive action on the state level.

For those who need a refresher on the process, here’s a quick explainer. Each year bills are introduced and must be passed by the end of a legislative session. If a bill starts in the Senate (SB), it must make it through the Senate and then the Assembly before arriving on a governor’s desk to be signed into law. The reverse is true for a bill that starts in the Assembly (AB). There are various committees in each chamber to which a bill might be sent through the legislative process. The Appropriations Committee, for example, might debate and tweak the bill before scheduling a hearing, casting a vote, and then moving the bill to the full chamber for a vote. Committees are often where bills go to die: if a committee chair fails to schedule a hearing before the session ends, the bill expires. If a bill is scheduled for a hearing in committee, it’s a good sign that the committee is likely to support the bill.

Some of these bills will be up for a vote this Thursday, August 19 in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The deadline for all bills to pass both chambers this year is September 10.

If you wish to voice support for any of these bills, we’ve indicated where each bill is in the legislative process. If a bill is pending in the Senate, call or email your state senator in support of the bill. If it’s pending in the Assembly, reach out to your assemblymember. You can find out who your representatives are here.

California Police and Law Enforcement Reform Bills

SB 2: Police Decertification Bill

This is our best chance this year to get some limited accountability for abusive cops. Prosecuting remains a Herculean task in our imbalanced legal process. Decertification, however, would not require as high of a burden of proof. This would make it less difficult to take away an offender’s badge, taser, and gun and strip them of the power they wielded with malicious intent.

Cops enjoy a certain law-ordained privilege called qualified immunity. This privilege often blocks prosecution and personal liability for actions law enforcement officers took during work, even if their actions could have been prosecuted as citizens. They are literally “above” the law. Cerise Castle’s series on LASD Gangs shows prime examples of the ways the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department weaponized qualified immunity and the trust afforded to their badges to skirt legal guidelines while terrorizing the same communities they swore to protect. Even when a department does fire a police officer for misconduct, they can usually find another job with law enforcement — either in a different city or a different uniform.

All but three other states have procedures to decertify officers who commit crimes. SB 2 would make it easier to decertify officers that abuse their power, preventing them from patrolling any streets with a badge again. California is overdue to update our procedures, considering the size and influence of our law enforcement in our communities. 

It also doesn’t uphold the misinformed belief that our criminal legal system actually does its job in holding wrongdoers accountable. 

Current Status: Passed in Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

SB 16: Release Police Records

This is an obvious yes. Officers’ records should be available for public scrutiny. They are public servants. Their actions matter and affect the communities in which they serve. Unlike California, most states don’t prohibit the release of officers’ records.

This bill would compel law enforcement departments to release records in any case where a police officer used force to get a suspect to comply. SB 16 would also require police to disclose in a specific timeline, preventing them from using their usual tactics to stall and evade transparency.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

AB 490: Ban Police Use of Chokeholds

Another obvious yes! This would change police training to exclude the use of chokeholds on suspects.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate. Placed in the Suspense File.

AB 958: Law Enforcement Gangs

An interesting bill pledging to root out “bad apples” and compelling departments to cooperate with external investigations. From the legislative summary:

This bill would define a law enforcement gang, a group of law enforcement officers within an agency that engages in a pattern of specified unlawful or unethical on-duty behavior, and would require law enforcement agencies to have a policy prohibiting law enforcement gangs and making participation, as specified, in a law enforcement gang grounds for termination. The bill would require an agency to disclose an officer’s termination for involvement in a law enforcement gang to another law enforcement agency conducting a pre-employment background investigation of that officer.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate. Placed on Suspense File

AB 118: Community Alternatives to Calling the Police and 911 — CRISES Act

This past November Los Angeles County voted in favor of Measure J, a wide-sweeping measure that requires LA County to spend at least 10% of its general fund on social services and jail diversion programs. Unfortunately, Measure J is now in jeopardy.

AB 118 would create grants for emergency response that would specifically target groups rooted in the communities they are serving instead of involving police officers. It acts a bit like a statewide Measure J.

The bill text describes it best:

The complexities of emergency issues surrounding crises in mental health, intimate partner violence, community violence, substance abuse, and natural disasters can, at times, be addressed more safely, with greater impact, and more cost effectively and efficiently with community organizations, which often have deeper knowledge and understanding of the issues, trusted relationships with the people and communities involved, and specific knowledge and relationships surrounding the emergency.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.  

AB 988: Create a Police-Free Mental Health Crisis Hotline

Far too often, law enforcement is deployed in a mental health emergency. The police presence often stresses and exacerbates the trauma for the individual, and many times the police react to the individual’s erratic behavior with violence — like the LAPD did with Richard Solitro Jr., in April 2021. This line would create a safe space for people to call and get counseling when they or a loved one are in distress.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending the Senate. Waiting for Senate Governmental Organization

California Youth Criminal Justice Bills

AB 503: End “Endless Probation” for Youth

One of the ugliest aspects of our current legal system is our fixation on criminalizing youth and introducing them to life as wards of the state. This bill hopes to chip away at this fixation and put more of an emphasis on rehabilitative measures.

As the Crime Report explains, “In an echo of the adult justice system, once a young person is placed on probation, he or she is more likely to be sent into detention because of a ‘technical violation’ of the probationary terms, rather than for committing a new offense.”

This bill doesn’t do away with probation, but it does limit the scope. Adolescents can only be placed on probation in six-month increments. There is a hearing every six months, during which the burden falls on the probation agency to prove why the youth must stay on probation. Current law requires the youth to either pay a $250 fine or participate in an uncompensated work program. This bill would nix that requirement.

AB 503 brings us one step closer toward giving kids who have made mistakes a chance to become competent and well-adjusted adolescents and adults.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate

SB 493: Local Juvenile Justice Funding

From the legislative summary:

This bill would … require a plan to include an assessment of existing community-based youth development services, identification and prioritization of areas of the community that face significant public safety risk from crime, documentation of the effectiveness of the programs funded under these provisions, and a description of the target population funded under these provisions. The bill would require programs and strategies funded under these provisions to, among other things, be modeled on trauma-informed and youth development approaches and in collaboration with community-based organizations. The bill would require a portion no less than 95% of the funds allocated under these provisions to be distributed to community-based organizations and other public agencies or departments that are not law enforcement entities, as specified, and prohibits this portion of the funds from being used for law enforcement purposes. activities or personnel.

Current Status: Stalled in the Senate

California Legalization Bills
AB 122: Let Cyclists Treat Stop Signs as Yield

As the law stands right now, police officers often use this law to write frivolous tickets or as a pretense to stop people they deem suspicious. This amendment would offer a slight buffer of protection.

Current Status: Passed Assembly, Pending in Senate

SB 357: Repeals Law Prohibiting Loitering for the Purpose of Engaging in a Prostitution Offense 

As Nessa from DecrimLA explains, “This bill addresses the disproportionate criminalization of Black and Brown people by repealing a discriminatory law that permits harassment of individuals for ‘walking while trans’ and ‘looking like’ sex workers. In [many] rape cases involving street-based sex workers, rapists are identified as the police. In the National Blacklist and reports of clients to avoid, there are more than four times more complaints about the police than pimps. Here in Los Angeles, [District Attorney] Gascon stated he would no longer prosecute sex workers, which is progress, although not decriminalization.”

SB 357 is a gradual step in the direction of ending police harassment. This bill would also open a pathway for people previously convicted for loitering to repeal their sentence. Co-sponsored by St. James Infirmary, SWOP LA, Equality, ACLU, and others.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

AB 1238: Ending Tickets for Jaywalking When Safe

Current Status: Passed in Assembly, Pending in Senate — Placed in Suspense File

California Bills on Court Procedures

SB 262: Bail

In November 2020, voters saw through Prop 25’s empty promise to end cash bail by replacing it with a dubious risk assessment program. 

SB 262 is not as sweeping as Prop 25’s end to cash bail, but it’s a step in the right direction. SB 262 would set bail at zero for most nonviolent crimes. This bill would thus not eliminate all cash bail, as Prop 25 sought to do, but it would dramatically limit its reach. And, unlike Prop 25, the bill does not propose to add a problematic risk-assessment algorithm in place of bail. SB 262 is more limited, which we see as a good thing, fixing a part of the problem without all of Prop 25’s nasty strings attached.

Current Status: Passed the Senate, Pending in the Assembly

SB 586: Curtailing Criminal Fees 

Most people are unaware of how expensive it is to get arrested, and all the fees associated with it add up to an impossible burden on people trying to get back on their feet. The fees plunge these individuals, most of whom are people of color, further into poverty, creating more conditions for recidivism. As the bill itself states, “According to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the average debt incurred for court-ordered fines and fees was roughly equal to the annual income for respondents in the survey. A national survey of formerly incarcerated people found that families often bear the burden of fees and that 83 percent of the people responsible for paying these costs are women.”

Last year, California became the first state in the nation to stop collecting 23 fees in the criminal legal system, with the passage of AB 1869. Activists have been chipping away at the disproportionate, harmful, and redundant nature of legal fees for a long time now. San Francisco was the first city and county to do away with fees, with Los Angeles County following close behind. 

SB 586 seeks to build onto the trend by abolishing the remaining 60 fees currently imposed on people charged by the criminal legal system. Right now people are charged fees for drug testing, record sealing, and even for needing to sign up for a payment plan. They get fined for not having enough money to pay upfront. The bill would also vacate current outstanding fine-and-fee debt. Other attempts to shrink the wide net of legal fees, like SB 144, failed to make it through the Legislature.

Current Status: Passed the Senate, Pending in the Assembly.

SB 710: District Attorneys: Conflicts of Interest

This bill would require a district attorney who accepted donations from any police association to recuse themselves from any investigation or prosecution of police misconduct. District attorneys are the chiefs of county prosecutors, so they’re usually on the same side as cops when trying a case. However, when the tables turn it’s important to trust that a police officer will be held accountable to the same standard as any other defendant. Campaign donations from police associations muddy that clear boundary.

During a jury selection process, each juror is asked a series of questions to determine whether or not they have a bias or special tie to any particular aspect of the case that might spark some kind of bias. It’s an absolute no to find out they have any financial ties to the defendant. So why do we let district attorneys who’ve received campaign donations from police associations try police misconduct cases against those same police?

Current Status: Passed in Senate, Pending in Assembly. 

California Criminal Sentencing Bills

SB 81: Sentence Enhancements

Sentence enhancements are a commonly used trap in the legal system. Sentence enhancements are punishments that can be stacked upon each other depending on the circumstances of the crime. Prosecutors often pursue any and all enhancements they can find as a tactic to intimidate a defendant and coerce defendants to plead guilty to avoid the risk, hassle, and expense of going to trial. 

This bill would make it the default for judges to dismiss enhancements and would place the burden of proof on a prosecutor to justify each enhancement in a case.

Specific guidelines for enhancement dismissal are outlined in the bill. Some examples of ways to dismiss enhancements are if the case is connected to a mental health issue or childhood trauma; if the case falls under a specific definition of non-violent offense; if the enhancement results in adding over 20 years to their sentence; and if the offense took place while the defendant was a juvenile. This will have mighty implications in the pre-trial process.

Current Status: Passed the Senate, Pending in Assembly — Placed in Suspense File

AB 333: Restrict Gang Enhancements — STEP Forward Act

Our current law defines gang activity with woefully subjective language. An individual can act alone and still be legally reprimanded as being a part of a gang. Often the only evidence that cops present is that someone wore clothes that matched a certain gang’s uniform. Whole neighborhoods are deemed gang-affiliated areas, and officers often exploit this rule to boost their own stats. Cops target people based on their geographic location and an individual deemed a gang member often gets years added to their sentence and much harsher treatment. There is, of course, a racial factor to this as well. According to the bill’s language, in Los Angeles alone, the state’s largest jurisdiction, over 98% of people sentenced to prison for gang enhancements are people of color.

Unfortunately, AB 333 does not propose to do away with gang enhancements altogether. Instead, this bill would sharpen the legal definition of gang affiliation, placing a heavier burden of proof onto prosecutors in order to request these enhancements.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate

SB 300: Sentencing Reform Act 

From the legislative summary: “This bill would repeal the aforementioned provision requiring punishment by death or imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole for a person convicted of murder in the first degree who is not the actual killer, but acted with reckless indifference for human life as a major participant.”

Current Status: Stalled in Assembly — Placed in Suspense File

SB 483: Remove Sentence Enhancements

This bill would remedy an oversight in the Rise Act of 2017, which removed certain sentencing enhancements. The bill’s passage was a tremendous victory, but the new law didn’t apply retroactively. Current law states that unless specified, a case that is final — run out of appeals, etc. — can’t take advantage of changes in sentencing law. This bill seeks to fix that oversight so that defendants have a chance to get their cases reexamined and sentences reduced. It is endorsed by the Ella Baker Center.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

SB 567: Limits Sentences Unless There Are Aggravating Circumstances

This bill would limit the length of prison sentences to the middle of the allowable range or less unless aggravating circumstances are proven true beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Aggravating instances would include torturing a victim or if the victim is law enforcement. SB 567 would particularly benefit defendants who were under 18 when they committed the crime. These defendants could petition a recall and resentencing if they’ve already served at least 15 years of their sentence.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

SB 775: Felony Murder Resentencing

“Felony murder” allows prosecutors to go after someone they consider to be an accomplice of a killer. This includes people who had no knowledge of the killing, such as someone who might have given the murderer a ride. This bill would authorize a person convicted of felony murder who has participated in the crime — or other theory under which malice is imputed to a person solely based on that person’s participation in crime — to petition to vacate the conviction and to be resentenced on any remaining counts if several conditions are met.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

California Prison Amendment

ACA 3: Constitutional Amendment to End Involuntary Servitude in California Prisons

The California Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime. This measure could have removed that exception, but it seems to be stalled and possibly dead this session. This is an enormous letdown. This would have changed many incarcerated folks’ lives for the better by ending most current forms of prison labor.

It’s shameful but not surprising to see a motion this consequential be smothered this way; it’s not a good look to vote against ending indentured servitude, especially when prison labor is a source of corporate profits.

However, Sylvester Ani, candidate for CA-38, remains optimistic: “ACA3: Abolition Act is important because we have never lived in a country where slavery was abolished in its entirety. We cannot move forward as a society without atoning for one of America’s original sins and the abolition act on the state and federal level presents an opportunity for America to live up to the freedoms it promised on paper. I am confident that it will pass because in the year 2021 you can’t defend slavery under any circumstance and America must reckon with the legacy of slavery to save itself from chaos.”

Current Status: The Assembly failed to approve it before the June 30 deadline by quietly placing it in the Suspense File before it had a chance to gain momentum

California Immigration Bills

AB 937: End ICE Transfers (Vision Act)

From the legislative summary: “This bill would prohibit any state or local agency from arresting or assisting with the arrest, confinement, detention, transfer, interrogation, or deportation of an individual for an immigration enforcement purpose. It also would prohibit state or local agencies or courts from using immigration status as a factor to deny or to recommend denial of probation or participation in any diversion, rehabilitation, mental health program, or placement in a credit-earning program or class, or to determine custodial classification level, to deny mandatory supervision, or to lengthen the portion of supervision served in custody.” Youth Justice LA has a write-up and action cued up.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending in the Senate. Placed in Suspense File

California Bills Supporting Families Affected By Violence of Police and the Carceral System

SB 299: Support for Victims of Police Violence

Current law allows citizens to be compensated for being victims of specific crimes, paid for by the California Victim Compensation Board from the Restitution Fund. This bill would expand the scope of eligibility to include crimes committed by a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether the officer is arrested or charged. The bill also creates a clear path toward families being compensated for officers’ excessive use of force. Injuries sustained during protests, hospital bills, therapy visits, burial expenses, and more would all be covered by this bill. 

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

AB 990: Expand Visitation Rights for Families of Prisoners 

This bill is focused on providing a space for children to develop and maintain relationships with their incarcerated parents. This bill would mandate a child-centered approach toward visitation rights. Governor Newsom’s Finance Department opposes this bill based on potential fiscal impacts, using the excuse that it would cause more security concerns to have more people going in and out of the facilities, which would compel them to spend more money on guards. They also don’t want to spend money creating “child-centered, non-intimidating” visiting rooms more suitable for bonding.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending the Senate. Placed in Suspense File

AB 133: Healthcare with Medi-Cal

This is a huge bill with lots of components not related to the criminal legal system (the biggest of which expanded Medi-Cal eligibility to undocumented immigrants 50 and up). Couched in its text are clauses that would expand access to Medi-Cal for people in any stage of incarceration. It is supported by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Current Status: Passed both Senate and Assembly, and signed into law by the governor! Its implementation now falls to California’s secretary of state, Shirley Weber. 

AB 1228: Widens Post-Release Freedoms 

Right now, many newly released prisoners stay out of prison only at the whim of judges and probation officers. Individuals can lose their freedom on a technicality. This bill makes it harder to revoke their freedom and take them back to prison.

Current Status: Passed Assembly, Pending the Senate. Placed in Suspense File

California Bills on Conviction Records

SB 731: Removes Felonies from Specific Peoples’ Records

It can be impossibly difficult to find a job after going through the criminal legal system. Our system places so many barriers on reentry to society, which in turn spurs higher recidivism rates. This bill would retroactively help formerly incarcerated people access employment and other opportunities by removing the red letter felony from peoples’ records if they meet certain criteria.

Current Status: Passed in the Senate, Pending the Assembly. Next hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee: 8/19

AB 1308: Allows Expungement of More Arrests and Convictions

This bill would require the Department of Justice to comb through its database every month and identify people who are eligible to have their records expunged. They would also be compelled to publish an annual report for each county regarding the total number of arrests granted relief. Since this monthly bookkeeping practice would be compulsory for the DoJ, no responsibility would fall on the individuals in question to request their records be expunged.

Current Status: Passed the Assembly, Pending the Senate. Hearing postponed by Public Safety Committee

California Criminal Justice Bills That Have Died During the 2021 Session

While there is not much to be done about these during this session, it is good to know which bills died in order to move forward with continued criminal justice reform:

  • SB 271: would have allowed people who are not law enforcement officers to run for sheriff 
  • AB 610: would have stopped requiring schools to report student violence to law enforcement
  • AB 1509: Anti-Racist Sentencing Reform Act

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