The Lookout: Four California Criminal Justice Reform Laws That Took Effect This Year

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By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden signed a federal policing accountability executive order based on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 authored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA-37). That action supplements other criminal justice reforms affecting Californians that took place this year. Several other criminal justice reforms at the state level went into effect in January.

Here is a rundown highlighting four of those laws, detailing what they do, and recounting what California legislators have said about them.

Senate Bill (SB) 317 allows conduct credits to be earned while an individual who has been deemed mentally incompetent by the court is in a state hospital or other mental health treatment facility awaiting trial.

Authored by State Senator Henry Stern (D-Calabasas), SB 317 was signed by Gov. Gavin

Newsom in October of last year and went into effect this past January.

“SB 317 provides pathways to appropriate mental health treatment for defendants charged with misdemeanors,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-California), Chair of the Public Safety Committee.

SB 317 also changes some of the guidelines for trial competency.

“It is important to remember that not all options are available for every defendant, as those are dependent on the situation and mental health status of each defendant,” stated Jones-Sawyer. “This bill is a tailored approach that allows California to use existing tools to help defendants gain competency and avoid a cycle of incarceration.”

Assembly Bill (AB) 124 provides a petition process for an individual to request that an arrest or conviction for nonviolent offenses be vacated — if the booking or crime resulted from the person being a victim of intimate partner violence or sexual violence.

“This bill ensures that survivors of sexual violence are able to receive justice through our legal system, which typically overlooks the context of abuse when determining whether to arrest,” said Jones-Sawyer.

Newsom signed AB 124, which was authored by Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), in October last year. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

“Incarcerated survivors of trafficking & violence need a 2nd chance at holistic justice,” Kamlager tweeted last year before the bill passed. “We cannot continue to criminalize behavior born of desperation and liberation when our systems don’t benefit those who need it most.”

The law also allows a coercion defense to be used in the case of a serious felony or charge of human trafficking if the defendant is a victim of human trafficking and their offense was a direct result of that.

“Many trafficking survivors are incarcerated for crimes committed to protect themselves from further

violence. AB 124 allows for more just outcomes moving forward,” stated Jones-Sawyer.

Senate Bill (SB) 73, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), ends mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

The legislation allows a court to suspend a sentence or grant probation for drug offenses such as possession or transportation of opiates or cannabis.

“Mass incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders hasn’t reduced drug use or addiction,” Wiener tweeted after the bill passed last year. “Time for a new approach.”

Assembly Bill (AB) 333, authored by Kamlager, limits the state’s gang enhancement law.

Gang enhancements are additional prison sentences prescribed to individuals who courts determine are associated with a gang.

Under the previous law enacted in 1988, individuals who are found to be affiliated or associated with a “criminal street gang” could receive gang

enhancements for any felony even if it is not connected to gang activity.

“When 92% of gang enhancements are used against BIPOC – that’s a massive systemic problem,” said Kamlager.

Just six months into the year, it is not clear how effective these new laws have been but the push for criminal justice reform continues inside and outside of the California legislature even as more conservative opinions harden against them.