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California ‘Racial Justice Act’ uses racial disparities to cut prison sentences

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(The Center Square) – A new California law now allows criminal defendants from disproportionately-convicted racial groups to challenge lawful convictions as state leaders seek to balance criminal justice reform with skyrocketing violent crime. The law also allows for additional challenges in the case of demonstrated racial bias inside or outside the court, or if a conviction or sentencing could have negative immigration consequences.

Law enforcement and prosecutors say this act has reversed otherwise lawful convictions of violent individuals, threatening public safety, while criminal justice advocates say that the existence of racial disparities in conviction and sentencing are evidence of injustice.

Under the Racial Justice Act, all a criminal defendant has to do to challenge a conviction or sentencing is present racial bias related to trials, or in the absence of bias, county-level data finding members of an individual’s race or national origin face more arrests, serious charges or longer sentences than another group.

Because Asian Americans commit crime at the lowest rates, even white Americans can use the Racial Justice Act and present a comparison population with relatively lower numbers of convictions and sentences.

Current prisoners in California became eligible for using the RJA to challenge their sentences and convictions starting in January of this year. The RJA has already been used to throw out life sentences for Oakland gang members convicted of murder after an investigation found racist communications and actions in the local police department.

“The pursuit of ‘equity’ in the name of justice is a Trojan horse, designed to free convicted felons solely based on the color of their skin, ignoring the simple fact they were arrested, tried, and convicted based on what they did,” said former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to The Center Square. “Show me the evidence where the law was applied differently due to skin color, I have yet to see it.”

While RJA author Assemblyember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose cited the California Department of Justice’s Judicial Council when saying black men are 42% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white men convicted of a felony, Judicial Council data from that year found 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.”

In April of 2024, San Diego public defenders successfully used the RJA to prevent a certain judge from hearing an RJA motion in a homicide case because the judge said in an earlier case “there is absolutely no evidence that … the proportion of persons in an ethnicity committing a crime must be the same as the proportion of the population.”

In documentation providing clarification and training for use of the RJA, criminal justice advocacy group Prosecutors Alliance suggests that RJA population comparisons should be made using “people who have engaged in similar conduct – not who is convicted versus the population as a whole.”

When asked if the organization meant defense lawyers should use populations of criminals who commit similar crimes as the comparison populations for RJA motions, the Prosecutors Alliance said, “We cannot have true justice when racial disparities exist at every level of the criminal legal system. We need ways to address these injustices both proactively and retroactively, and the Racial Justice Act plays a key role in our ability to do that.”

“The RJA helps create a fairer, more equitable legal system, which builds trust with communities and promotes long-term safety,” continued Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance, to The Center Square.

However, some crime experts say the RJA could hurt minority communities the most.

“The Prosecutors Alliance continues to suppress the actual cause for racial disparities in the criminal justice system: vast disparities in criminal offending,” said Manhattan Institute fellow and crime expert Heather Mac Donald to The Center Square, in response to the Prosecutors Alliance. “In Los Angeles, blacks are 57 times as likely to be a homicide suspect as whites. Blacks are 21 times as likely to commit a violent crime as whites in Los Angeles, and 36 times as likely to commit a robbery. These data come from witnesses to, and victims of, these crimes, mostly minority themselves, in their reports to the Los Angeles Police Department.”

“And it is those crime disparities that should be the focus of civil rights groups, since the victims of violent street crime are also disproportionately black,” continued Mac Donald. “In Los Angeles, blacks are 17 times as likely to be a homicide victim as whites, and 13 times as likely statewide.”

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