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Do California Lawmakers Have an Appetite for Reparations? Here's an Early Test

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A black and white sign reads, "Reparations Now 2023" and a line of people are to the right of it in business-casual clothing.
People line up to speak during public comment at a California Reparations Task Force meeting in Sacramento on March 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Watch KQED’s short film about what led the nine members of California’s Reparations Task Force to examine the historic harms of slavery and anti-Black racism in California.

California lawmakers are set to vote on key proposals that reflect ideas supported by the state’s Reparations Task Force, the historic panel that will soon present the Legislature with recommendations on how to address the effects of slavery and years of racist policies in the state.

On their own, the bills offer potentially transformative changes, particularly for the state’s criminal legal system. The legislation will provide an early test of lawmakers’ appetites for supporting specific policies identified by the panel as redress for harms endured by Black Californians.

Much of the debate about the task force’s work has centered on the idea of providing Black residents direct financial compensation. But supporters of the pending legislation say the proposals open the door to a debate about reparations that goes beyond cash payments to descendants of enslaved people.

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“I think [the bills] show that reparations is not just about slavery,” said James Woodson, executive director of the California Black Power Network, a coalition of grassroots organizations advocating for policies to improve the living conditions of Black Californians. “These measures show that the harms are continuing today.”

The reparations committee was created through a bipartisan vote of the Legislature in 2020, a move celebrated at the time as a historic step toward racial justice in the state. After almost two years of research and public hearings, the task force approved recommendations earlier this month in Oakland.

The nine-member panel voted to endorse a litany of policy ideas to benefit the descendants of those held in chattel slavery, along with estimates of financial damages to Black Californians due to health disparities, housing discrimination and unjust policing and sentencing.

Included in the calculation of harms: $2,352 for each year of residency between 1971 and 2020 to compensate for the effects of over-policing and mass incarceration, and $13,619 for each year lived in the state as recompense for health differences between Black and white Californians.

The state bills that correspond with task force ideas don’t come with such neat price tags. Instead, Woodson said, the proposals reflect long-standing priorities for Black residents that predate the current discussion about remuneration. Two constitutional amendments that could go before voters in a future election focus on the rights of incarcerated people. According to research by the Public Policy Institute of California, Black Californians are overrepresented in the state’s prisons and have the highest incarceration rate of any racial group.

One amendment would restore voting rights to Californians serving felony sentences, while the other would remove involuntary servitude from the state constitution. Starting this week, those two bills will be eligible for a vote by the full state Assembly. The legislation needs to pass with the support of a two-thirds supermajority to advance to the Senate.

Rows of people sit listening to someone speak. Their attention is toward the front. A row of cameras are on tripods behind them along the back wall.
A crowd listens during opening remarks at a California Reparations Task Force meeting in Sacramento on March 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I think there’s a lot of attention that comes around dollar amounts when we’re talking about reparations, but I think these two pieces of legislation show the repair of harm and restoration of rights really have nothing to do with giving people a check,” Woodson said.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 would place a measure on the 2024 ballot to extend voting rights to Californians serving felony sentences in state prison or county jail. Currently, only Maine and Vermont allow voting in prison.

“Voting is good for feeling connected to the community,” said Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), the bill’s author. “So being able to participate in democracy while incarcerated helps with that transition that’s needed for successful reentry and reintegration.”

Voters approved Proposition 17, which restored the right to vote for Californians on parole, in 2020.

“The Task Force calls on the Legislature to take the re-enfranchisement movement further, and restore voting rights to all incarcerated persons, including those serving state or federal prison terms,” the task force report reads.

ACA 4 is likely to face opposition from lawmakers who argue that Californians in prison should first complete their sentences to demonstrate a commitment to society.

“If you are still in debt to society and you’re not yet reformed, why should you have your ability to vote given back to you?” said Assemblymember Bill Essayli (R-Riverside), during a hearing on the bill last month in the Assembly Elections Committee. “I’m just worried that we’re going down this path of taking consequences away for committing crimes.”

Two South Bay Democrats on the committee, Evan Low and Gail Pellerin, said they shared concerns about the idea, but ultimately voted to advance the bill. Bryan said that the measure’s benefits should ensure a large, multiracial coalition of supporters.

“Reparations, pro-democracy, pro-public safety, pro-justice — those are all frames that belong in this conversation,” Bryan told KQED. “While it will enfranchise, disproportionately, a large number of Black folks, it will also re-enfranchise at least 7,000 veterans. It’ll re-enfranchise the parents of over 200,000 children in this state. It’ll re-enfranchise more Latinos than anybody else in terms of total number of people who are incarcerated.”

A close-up shot of a man's dark brown hands gently clasped as he sits.
A crowd member’s hands gently clasp during an emotional speech at the reparations teach-in at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco on Sept. 18, 2022. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

While Black residents make up 5% of California’s population, 28% of the state’s prison population is Black, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8 would remove an exception to involuntary servitude that has lingered in the state constitution, allowing such forced labor “as punishment to a crime.”

Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City) said the effects of the law are felt most acutely by people who can be assigned to work without choice in the type of job or the schedule. Incarcerated people can face punishment for not completing work.

The task force report admonished the state for continuing “to sanction, impose, and profit from involuntary servitude.” Currently, people incarcerated in state prisons can be paid as little as $0.08 an hour for their work, according to analysis of a proposal that failed last year.

“That is where you see it currently, with people being forced to work no matter what and to work without any sense of compensation,” Wilson said.

An older Black bald man is leaning over a podium as he is speaking to a younger black woman with long braids. They both wear business attire and have a projection screen behind them.
Sen. Steven Bradford and task force member Lisa Holder speak during the second day of an in-person meeting of the California Reparations Task Force at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco on April 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

By asking voters to amend the state constitution, California would join a handful of states that stripped “involuntary servitude” language from their constitutions last year.

Wilson said her proposal will have to overcome two lines of opposition: first, concerns that the change will lead to higher wages for prison labor — a point of objection raised by the Newsom administration in opposition to a similar bill that was voted down in the state Senate last year. Other lawmakers expressed worry that the removal of the involuntary servitude clause could open the door for people in state prisons to refuse shared duties such as cleaning up common areas.

Additional bills in the Legislature reflect ideas identified by the task force as ways to reduce the over-policing of Black Californians. Senate Bill 50 would ban traffic stops for low-level infractions. It was written by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who serves on the task force. Assembly Bill 93, also from Bryan, would prohibit law enforcement officers from asking for consent to search a person or their car without a warrant.

A Black man with gray hair and glasses and a gray suit speaks from behind a lectern that reads, "Los Angeles County Democratic Party."
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer of California’s 59th Assembly District on Nov. 3, 2020. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who also serves on the task force, said a larger push to pass reparations proposals will take place next year. He hopes to pursue something akin to a reparations omnibus bill, a single piece of legislation that would include many of the panel’s recommendations.

“Hopefully, we’re able to explain to people who have just concentrated on the financial aspect to know that the other recommendations are just as important,” Jones-Sawyer said. “In their totality, they’re more important when you add them all together.”

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