California Racial Justice Act for All Passes First Legislative Committee

Tuesday, March 23, 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 – Today, Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) applauds the Assembly Public Safety Committee for passing the California Racial Justice Act for All, AB 256, which will extend civil rights protections in California courts to all people charged or convicted of a crime using racial bias. The Racial Justice Act for All follows the historic signing of AB 2542 last year, which prohibits the use of race, ethnicity, or national origin in sentencing and convictions. 

The bill will next move to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. AB 256 is joint-authored by Assemblymembers  Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) and Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), and Senator Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles).

“I am grateful to the Assembly Committee on Public Safety for passing the Racial Justice Act for All,” said Assemblymember Kalra. “We are another step closer to getting this bill signed into law, but the fight is not over. I urge my colleagues to support AB 256 when it is heard in the Committee on Appropriations and to stand alongside us in confronting racism in our courts, and upholding justice and the Constitutional rights of equality for all Californians.”

While AB 2542 (Kalra, Chapter 317, Statutes of 2020) made it possible for a person charged or convicted of a crime to challenge racial bias in their case, it excluded judgments rendered prior to Jan. 1, 2021. With the Racial Justice Act for All, Assemblymember Kalra and justice advocates are committed to making the law retroactive to ensure that everyone with unfair convictions and sentences has an opportunity to pursue justice.

“Because the Racial Justice Act is not retroactive, Hugo who is a loved member of the Alma community, a father, son and my brother will die in prison behind a crime he never committed because of the racial injustice practices allowed in the court,” said Joey Rodriguez, part of Silicon Valley De-Bug. “He believed in the court system and it betrayed him. The committee’s decision today has the authority to give him and so many others a chance at a fair trial without racial discrimination, bias, or misrepresenation by making the Racial Justice Act retroactive.”

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.

“We are glad the Assembly Public Safety Committee is pushing this bill forward. Too many times, we have seen Black and Brown people denied a fair trial or a jury of their peers. The Racial Justice Act for All is a profound step forward to healing our past. Toward rooting-out racism in the legal system and ensuring that Black and Brown people get a more equal opportunity for justice in our courtrooms,” said Derick Morgan, Policy Associate with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We know there is more work to do to bring racial justice to everyone.”

Systemic racial disparities have fueled 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. Similarly, African American women are imprisoned in the state at five times the rate for white women.

“We've seen and experienced racism in the courtrooms for years now. We’ve held families' hands and wiped tears when verdicts came down which were clear examples of racial bias,” said Cecilia Chavez, Organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. “Making the Racial Justice Act retroactive would give hope to the many families that we've supported over the years but who the system let down. It is time to amend the prehistoric laws and awaken the courts to a more fair system where there will be true accountability and racism will no longer be tolerated.”

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 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 of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Initiate Justice, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the League of Women Voters of California, NextGen, and Silicon Valley De-Bug.

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Assemblymember Ash Kalra represents the 27th District, which encompasses approximately half of San Jose and includes all of downtown. He is the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment and also serves as a member on the Housing and Community Development, Judiciary, Transportation, and Water, Parks, and Wildlife committees.