Working Toward a 'More Just System,' Brown OKs Rollback of Harsh Sentencing Laws

A Calif. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer stands guard inside San Quentin State Prison. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hundreds of California inmates serving sentences for murder will now be able to challenge their convictions. On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill repealing a long-standing law allowing prosecutors to charge accomplices with first-degree murder.

It's a huge shift, and one of several bills this year that were opposed by prosecutors and other law enforcement groups.

On Sunday, the governor also signed two bills making it harder for juveniles to be charged with crimes.

One law prohibits the criminal prosecution of children 11 and younger unless they are accused of rape or murder. A second bars prosecutors from charging 14- and 15-year-olds as adults.

Brown's signatures square with his efforts the last eight years to roll back harsh sentencing laws — many of which originated during his first term as governor more than four decades ago. Those early laws helped pack state prisons to the brim, causing an overcrowding crisis. But in recent years, voters and lawmakers have approved a slew of criminal justice reforms as questions of racial inequity and the fairness of long sentences took hold in the cultural zeitgeist.

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Brown also signed a bill Sunday that could shorten many criminal sentences. Senate Bill 1393 lets judges decide if they should impose extra years onto a sentence — known as an enhancement — when someone convicted of a new felony had a previous conviction on their record.

The most closely watched and controversial of these bills, though, was Senate Bill 1437 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Oakland. It narrows California law so that only someone with direct involvement in, or planning of, a murder can be charged with that crime.

The law is retroactive and will allow an estimated 800 inmates serving time for felony murder to request a re-sentencing hearing. Skinner called the change a "fair and reasonable fix."

“California’s murder statute irrationally treated people who did not commit murder the same as those who did,” Skinner said in a written statement. "SB 1437 makes clear there is a distinction, reserving the harshest punishment to those who directly participate in the death.”

The change in law, which will take effect Jan. 1, will have huge ramifications for pending and future cases, including Neko Wilson's case, which KQED profiled earlier this year.

Wilson was charged nine years ago with murder. He claims he wasn't present at the killing, and has been in jail and awaiting trial since then. Wilson's brother and defense attorney, Jacque Wilson, said the new law could let his brother go home to see his aging father and young daughter soon.

"This gives him an opportunity to reunite with his family and community," Jacque Wilson said. "He's not a killer."

The governor's signature on the felony murder bill wasn't a shock. His office lobbied lawmakers in the state Assembly to vote for it when the bill appeared on the verge of failing.

But the governor appeared to struggle more with the measure barring kids under the age of 16 from being charged as adults.

Brown attached a signing message to that signature, noting it was a "difficult bill."

"By definition, any 14 or 15 year old that a district attorney seeks to prosecute as an adult has been accused of very serious crimes," Brown wrote. "The opposition of certain crime victims and their families to this measure is intense. I have carefully listened to that opposition and it has weighed on me."

But Brown said he has also studied case examples, research and data.

In addition to the victim's pleas, Brown wrote that he's been considering "the stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes."

He noted that teens who face charges in a juvenile court can be held beyond their sentence if they are "deemed truly dangerous."

"There is a fundamental principle at stake here: Whether we want a society which at least attempts to reform the youngest offenders before consigning them to adult prisons where their likelihood of becoming a lifelong criminal is much higher," Brown wrote. "My view is we should continue to work toward a more just system that respects victims, protects public safety, holds youth accountable and also seeks a path of redemption and reformation wherever possible."

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