Assemblymember Ash Kalra and Anti-Death Penalty Coalition Announce the California Racial Justice Act

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The California Racial Justice Act will take a clear and profound step towards establishing a clear prohibition on the use of race, ethnicity or national origin in seeking or obtaining convictions or sentences

SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), joined by anti-death penalty advocates, today announced the introduction of AB 2200, the California Racial Justice Act. The landmark bill addressing racial discrimination in criminal sentencing and convictions was highlighted during a press conference this morning as part of the California Anti-Death Penalty Coalition’s lobby day.

“One year ago, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions, stating that it is a racist system that is perpetuating inequality,” said Assemblymember Kalra. “As person of color and a former deputy public defender, I have seen racial discrimination in the court system first hand and I am proud to stand alongside everyone here today to confront racism in the courts. We can no longer accept racial bias in the criminal justice system as unfixable—that is why today, we take the next step forward with introduction of the California Racial Justice Act to prohibit the use of race and ethnicity as a factor in the state’s justice system across the board.”

“Racial bias in our criminal legal system is pervasive and pernicious,” said Dora Rose, Deputy Director of the League of Women Voters of California. “California’s civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in housing, education and employment—they should extend to the criminal legal system as well.”

The California Racial Justice Act is a countermeasure to a widely condemned 1987 legal precedent established in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp. Known as the McCleskey decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has since required defendants in criminal cases to prove intentional discrimination when challenging racial bias in their legal process, establishing an unreasonably high standard for victims of racism in the criminal legal system that is almost impossible to meet without direct proof that the racially discriminatory behavior was conscious, deliberate and targeted. The Court’s majority, however, also observed that State Legislatures concerned about racial bias in the criminal justice system could act to address it.

“California incarcerates close to 10 percent of our country’s prisoners and Black people are the most disproportionately affected. It’s about time we begin to address racial disparities in sentencing,” said Amber-Rose Howard, Executive Director at Californians United for a Responsible Budget. “The Racial Justice Act intends to do just that. This bill will amplify the efforts of community groups who have been working for decades to address the root causes of the incarceration crisis.”

Two states, Kentucky and North Carolina, both enacted Racial Justice Acts specific to the death penalty, although the North Carolina law was later repealed when the majority in the Legislature changed parties. The California Racial Justice Act will go further by prohibiting racial discrimination in all convictions and sentences and creating a process to challenge racial bias at trial or following conviction.

“While we should be encouraged by the various reforms recently implemented in California, our state remains one of the worst in the nation when it comes to systemic racial disparities in mass incarceration,” said Ken Spence, Senior Policy Advisor NextGen California. “By establishing a framework for defendants to challenge racism and bias in our criminal courts, I am hopeful that AB 2200, the California Racial Justice Act, will push our justice system to more closely live up to its ideals.” 

“At present, and in our past, racism, anti-ethnic bias and xenophobia act like a venom in our legal system—deeply felt if not always seen, and corrupting our courts even with small doses,” said Derick Morgan, of the Ella Baker Center. “The California Racial Justice Act is an important step to confront racism and its effects. Now is the time to make that step.”

AB 2200 is sponsored by American Friends Service Committee, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the League of Women Voters, and NextGen.