Gov. Jerry Brown signs new laws overhauling state’s criminal justice system
Over the past five weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a slate of new laws overhauling California’s criminal justice system, pushing the state away from punitive incarceration policies and establishing a new era of transparency in cases of police misconduct and officer-involved shootings.
The laws eliminate the state’s cash bail system, give judges more discretion when handing down sentences, prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults, and rewrite California’s so-called felony murder rule, which allows prosecutors to charge accomplices to a homicide with first-degree murder. They’re among roughly a dozen new measures, which will taking effect after Jan. 1.
Among the most groundbreaking changes are a pair of laws that give the public access to police personnel records and require timely release of body-worn camera video for serious incidents.
California has the most restrictive police records laws in the country, rules that have made it difficult for even prosecutors to get information about officer wrongdoings.
“This has been a really dramatic year of advancement for criminal justice reforms,” said Natasha Minsker, director of ACLU’s California Center for Advocacy and Policy in Sacramento.
The ACLU of California and the California News Publishers Association were among the two bills’ sponsors.
Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, the agency auditing Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office policies and internal investigations, said opening up police records is “a huge sea change” that’ll benefit both policing agencies and the public.
Giving the public a more consistent look into how agencies investigate employees is essential for building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, Threet said.
“The value comes in across-the-board transparency and releasing those videos, whether it reflects well on the officer or whether it doesn’t reflect well,” Threet said.
“That shows the public the agency is playing straight with the public no matter what.”
Another landmark law passed this year eliminates California’s cash bail system by 2020. Other new laws provide more services for people exonerated of crimes, prohibit the incarceration of children younger than 12 years old and remove a mandatory 5-year sentencing enhancement for serious felony convictions, allowing judges to use discretion.
The laws come on the heels of two major ballot initiatives aimed at ending an era of tough-on-crime policies that contributed to mass incarceration and prison overcrowding. Approved by voters in 2014, Proposition 47 reduced penalties for low-level crimes, while Propitiation 64 legalized recreational marijuana in 2016.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch is worried about the financial impact these changes will have on local governments.
Shorter sentences mean more people will be housed in local jails and overseen by local probation departments.
“We are dealing with a changing landscape in the criminal justice arena that continues to keep offenders local, which means greater challenges for our community to work with them to develop tools to avoid recidivating,” or going back to jail, Ravitch said in an email.
Ravitch said new laws pertaining to juvenile criminal cases won’t have a significant impact in Sonoma County where prosecutors have rarely charged children 15 and under as adults. Employees in her office said they couldn’t provide statistics on juveniles charged as adults because of limits in their computer system.
Those cases are rare, according to a review of criminal trials involving juveniles covered by The Press Democrat.
The most recent example on the North Coast was a 2010 homicide case in Mendocino County. Prosecutors charged as an adult a then 14-year-old boy who shot and killed his sister’s estranged boyfriend on the Manchester-Point Arena Rancheria in February 2007. The boy pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was given a 10-year sentence to be served in a juvenile correctional facility.
Many of this year’s new laws were authored by a pair of Southern California senators - Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens - motivated to end tough-on-crime policies which they say contributed to prison crowding and the criminalization of young people.
Last year, they wrote bills signed into law that reduced sentence enhancements for some low-level drug offenses, banned life sentences for children, and ended the practice of charging families fees for each day a child is incarcerated - a practice not done for adults.
A Press Democrat investigation last year found more than $4 million in outstanding bills hung over parents and guardians of children arrested in Sonoma County.
The revelation caused the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in June 2017 to stop charging families of incarcerated youth daily fees.
Then in October 2017, the Legislature and Brown banned daily juvenile hall fees in all 58 counties, a move that in ten months has saved $207 million in discharged and relieved debt statewide, according to data provided by Mitchell’s office.
Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said as a board member with the California Public Defenders Association she pushed for legislators to pass the transparency provisions for police personnel records and body-camera footage.
“California is one of the few states that really was very secretive and almost clandestine regarding public information on police personnel investigations and excessive force,” Pozzi said, noting legislators previously tried and failed to get similar bills passed.
California’s strict protections of police personnel and misconduct records dates back to Brown’s first stint as governor in the 1970s. Brown signed a bill limiting public access to personnel records in 1978.
“The public has a right to know what’s happening with public dollars,” Pozzi said.
“Why shouldn’t there be complete transparency?”
You can reach Staff Writer ?Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.