Assemblymember Kalra Announces New California Racial Justice Act for All

Friday, January 15, 2021

The legislation challenging racial bias in court cases would ensure the recently-signed Racial Justice Act can be applied retroactively for all Californians

SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) today announced the introduction of the California Racial Justice Act for All, AB 256, which extends the protections provided in last year’s AB 2542, a first-of-its-kind law in the state prohibiting the use of race, ethnicity, or national origin in sentencing and convictions. The bill is joint-authored by Assemblymembers Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), and Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles).

“As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday today, we must also remember to help champion his civil rights legacy, evoking his pursuit for racial justice, equality, and freedom for all Americans. I am humbled to be able to honor Dr. King’s memory and leadership through action by introducing the California Racial Justice Act for All,” said Assemblymember Kalra. “While passing last year’s bill was a major step towards addressing institutionalized and implicit racial bias in our courts, the work is not done. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that all Californians are afforded an opportunity to pursue justice by making the measure retroactive—ensuring that these new protections are rightfully extended to those who have already been harmed by unfair convictions and sentences.”

“The California Racial Justice Act created a critical and historic path forward for Black and Brown people to pursue justice in the face of racially discriminatory treatment during the criminal legal process,” said Mica Doctoroff, Legislative Attorney at the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy. “We are proud to join the diverse group of cosponsors behind this effort to challenge and confront systemic racism in California’s criminal legal system.”

Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2542 (Kalra, Chapter 317, Statutes of 2020) into law in December and the bill has already prompted justice advocates in other states to champion similar measures. While AB 2542 made it possible for a person charged or convicted of a crime to challenge racial bias in their case, it was prospective only, excluding judgments rendered prior to Jan. 1, 2021.

“Racial bias in our criminal legal system is pervasive and pernicious,” said Stephanie Doute, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of California. “The Racial Justice Act, passed last year, gives people the opportunity to challenge racial bias in the criminal legal process if it occurs after January 1, 2021. That was a huge step forward. It is now vital to extend this groundbreaking reform so that it’s available to everyone who has been unfairly imprisoned or sentenced as the result of bias in our justice system.”

“In establishing a framework for defendants to challenge the known systemic racism and bias in our criminal courts, the Racial Justice Act was a tremendous step forward,” said Ken Spence, Senior Policy Advisor for NextGen. “However, our work will remain incomplete unless we expand its protections, retroactively, to all impacted people, to those whose lives have already been savaged by an unjust system.”

“Full systemic accountability requires full retroactivity,” said Aminah Elster, Campaign and Policy Coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “Protections against racial bias and unfair sentencing schemes at work in our criminal legal system must be extended to all. By extending these protections to those already harmed, California can set an example to other states by demonstrating clear accountability and a commitment to racial justice, equality, and freedom for everyone.”

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

“The criminal justice system was designed as a mechanism of racialized control. There is nothing accidental about racism infecting every step of the criminal justice system from policing, to the courtroom, to incarceration, and even after release,” said Taina Vargas, Executive Director of Initiate Justice. “We must continue to root out institutional racism and match California's progressive image to its daily realities. We applaud Assemblymember Kalra for championing this cause and standing up for the most vulnerable members of society.”

Many incarcerated Californians have had their convictions and sentences upheld despite blatantly racist statements by attorneys, judges, jurors, and expert witnesses, the exclusion of all, or nearly all, Black or Latino people from serving on a jury, and stark statistical evidence showing systemic bias in charging and sentencing. 

Systemic racial disparities are pervasive in mass incarceration in the state, where according to the Public Policy Institute of California, four out of every ten people incarcerated in state prison are African American men—ten times the imprisonment rate for white men.

The principal coauthors of AB 256 are Assemblymembers Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Senators Steve Bradford (D-Gardena) and Lena Gonzalez (D- Long Beach). The bill is also coauthored by Assemblymembers Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), Alex Lee (D-San Jose), Marc Levine (D-Marin County), Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), and Senators María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

The legislation is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Friends Service Committee, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Initiate Justice, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the League of Women Voters of California, and NextGen.

###

Assemblymember Ash Kalra was first elected to the California Legislature in 2016, representing the 27th District, which encompasses approximately half of San Jose and includes all of downtown. In 2020, he was re-elected to his third term. Assemblymember Kalra is the Chair of the State Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and also currently serves as a member on the Housing and Community Development, Judiciary, Transportation, and Water, Parks, and Wildlife committees.