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California law allows conviction challenges on basis of racial disparities

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(The Center Square) – Most California convicts can now petition to have their convictions invalidated or sentences reduced on the basis of the presence of any disparities between racial groups in charging, sentencing or convictions. Law enforcement groups warn that these petitions throw out lawful convictions and threaten public safety.

Under the 2020 and 2022 Racial Justice Acts, legislators created two new main paths for convicts to petition for reduced sentencing or conviction reversals. Convicts can petition for any instance of biased language or conduct inside or outside the courtroom by anyone involved with their trial, or even if — in the absence of any individual bias — they produce county-level data finding members of their own race or national origin face more arrests, serious charges or longer sentences than any other group.

Notably, the act states “the defendant need not show that purposeful discrimination occurred” for a petition to succeed. The act also provides special treatment for illegal immigrants, who can now petition to overturn their convictions if the convictions will lead to adverse immigration proceeding consequences.

At the start of 2024, RJA expanded to cover every current California inmate.

“Controlling for conviction history and current offense, Black men convicted of a felony were still 42% more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white man convicted of a felony,” said bill author Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose. “Given our state’s troubled history of prosecuting and incarcerating people of color at much higher rates than the general population, it is imperative that we afford a mechanism for retroactive relief so our criminal justice system can begin to reckon with systemic racism and correct past injustices.”

In the 2021 law, Kalra cites the California Department of Justice’s Judicial Council as the source of the finding black men are 42% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white men convicted of a felony. However, Judicial Council data from the same year finds black men are 0.8 percentage points less likely to be convicted “if all other factors were held constant and the race switched to white.”

The California District Attorneys Association pointed out “AB 256 does not require a showing of any actual prejudice or harm arising from a violation of section 745 to reverse a conviction for cases occurring after January 1, 2021” and that the RJA would overturn lawful convictions of dangerous felons.

Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald covered the act in a recent Wall Street Journal column, condemning the act’s use of disproportionality as a proxy for racial discrimination in the absence of a specific requirement of a showing of intentional discrimination.

“This law has the potential to take down the entire criminal justice system in California by using groundless state analyses based on past patterns of arrests and convictions to defeat a perfectly legitimate arrest or prosecution,” said Mac Donald to The Center Square.

Major arrest and sentencing disparities exist between sexes. Men are half the nation’s population, but 74% of arrestees. Female arrestees are “significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions entirely, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted,” and men receive 63% longer sentences than women for the same crime.

When asked why legislators did not include sex-based provisions in the RJA, Mac Donald said, “I would like to think in this case the legislature is rational and they understand men are disproportionately represented in prison because they represent the vast, vast majority of the criminal offending population.”

By sex, California state prison inmates are 96% male and 4% female, compared to the state’s evenly split male and female population. The state’s general population is 5% black, 40% Latino, and 35% white, while its inmates are 27.5% black, 46.1% Latino and 20% white.

“If the legislature is able to make that judgment [on gender], they should also be able to make the same judgment” in other contexts, Mac Donald continued.

California hosts approximately 93,600 state prisoners and 54,500 county jail inmates. California’s imprisonment rate is 250 per 100,000 residents, or 30% below the national average of 355.

According to state reports, each prisoner costs taxpayers approximately $111,446 per year.

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