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.
Bills approved by Gov. Jerry Brown
• Senate Bill 1421: Removes confidentiality requirements for police personnel files in cases involving police shootings, sexual assault and other serious instances of misconduct, such as lying.
• Assembly Bill 748: Requires the timely release of body-worn camera videos and audio in serious cases.
• Senate Bill 439: Prohibits incarceration of children age 11 and younger.
• Senate Bill 1391: Prohibits children under age 16 from being tried as adults.
• Senate Bill 1393: Gives judges discretion for when to apply a 5-year sentencing enhancement for serious felony convictions.
• Senate Bill 1050: Provides greater services for people exonerated of crimes.
• Senate Bill 10: Eliminates California’s cash bail system starting in 2020.
• Assembly Bill 1793: Requires courts to automatically expunge eligible marijuana-related criminal convictions.
• Senate Bill 1437: Reduces the liability of accomplices to homicide.