Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last week a slew of criminal justice bills that are expected to bring major changes to California’s criminal justice system.
Half of the bills would lessen punishments for offenders, while others provide more transparency in police records and keep some violent offenders out of diversion programs, which are designed to rehabilitate offenders and avoid incarceration.
Supporters, including many reform advocates, say the new laws are a good thing for an excessively punitive criminal justice system. Critics, many of whom are in law enforcement, say they won’t serve victims justice and could put dangerous criminals back on the street.
The Napa County District Attorney’s Office has raised questions about two of the new laws in Facebook posts. District Attorney Allison Haley said she’s trying to raise awareness because the public may be surprised to learn about the changes.
The office posted about laws to prevent 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried as adults, and to change the felony murder rule. The rule previously held that accomplices to a murder could be charged with homicide, even if they were not the killer.
“As (district attorneys) we understand that we are not legislators. We enforce what our clients, the People of the State of California, tell us they want,” the office wrote in a post about the new felony murder rule. “While we will implement the change fully in compliance with the law, we are left wondering: what role, if any, are victims having in the sweeping changes to criminal justice in this state?”
Lighter sentences for some killers’ accomplices
Senate Bill 1437 was a bipartisan effort to limit felony murder convictions to those who assisted the killer in murder, or were a major participant in the felony “and acted with reckless indifference to human life.” State Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry voted for the measure.
The law is retroactive, meaning an estimated 400 to 800 people currently incarcerated in California may ask the court to decide whether a new sentence is appropriate.
A handful of other states — both red and blue — preceded California in narrowing their felony murder laws.
Critics worry that offenders whose actions contributed to a death won’t receive a fair punishment.
The District Attorney’s Facebook post linked to a critical opinion piece that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. Author John Diaz argued that rewriting the felony murder rule “exchanges one injustice for another.”
Diaz detailed the account of Pati Navalta Poblete, a woman whose son was murdered in Vallejo two years ago. She was infuriated to learn that a bill on Brown’s desk could allow the man who masterminded the crime that lead to her son’s death to walk free.
“It’s a bill that’s very much designed for the rights of the suspects, with no regard for the rights of the victims or their families,” Poblete told Diaz.
Supporters said the state’s felony murder rule disproportionately affected certain groups, such as people of color and women.
Others, like Sacramento State University criminal justice professor Jamie Singer, said the sentence doesn’t help rehabilitate offenders and is too harsh for those who committed a crime without intending for a murder to occur. And people learn to be better criminals while incarcerated, she said.
“To me, this is rectifying something that never should’ve been a law,” she said. “People who are not violent should not be incarcerated, in my opinion.”
Taking away judges’ authority to try some teens as adults
The District Attorney also posted on Facebook about Senate Bill 1391 to prevent 14- and 15-year-olds from being tried and sentenced as adults, even if they commit serious crimes. Dodd voted for the bill, but Aguiar-Curry did not vote on it.
As the office noted in its Facebook post, voters in 2016 passed through the initiative process Proposition 57 to allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether minors 14 years or older should be tried as an adult. This ensured “oversight, measured review and calm reflection,” the Napa District Attorney’s office wrote on Facebook.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen argued the new law is unconstitutional because it unlawfully undermined Proposition 57, The Mercury News reported.
The Napa County District Attorney’s office linked in its Facebook post to a Sacramento Bee opinion piece in which author Marcos Breton argued against the bill. He noted the prosecution of juveniles as adults is rare — in 2016, the Sacramento County District Attorney recommended in only three of the 7,230 cases filed in juvenile court that the accused should be tried as an adult.
“Some crimes, even if they are committed by boys under the age of 16, cannot be rehabilitated in a way that protects the public,” he wrote. “Or respects the victims.”
But Singer, who has a background in psychology, said she believed most 14- and 15-year-olds could change their ways at such a young age. It would be unfair to keep the previous law in place because a small portion of such teenagers may be unable to change, she said.
Singer pointed to research that the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. If anything, she said, people under that age should be treated differently in the criminal justice system.
Hormones are developing at the age of 14 and 15, Singer said. Young brains aren’t capable of high-level thinking and planning, and teenagers may be unable to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.
“The science has been there for many, many years and we’ve been waiting for these politicians and practitioners of criminal justice to catch up with the science,” she said.
Changes from ‘our voting public’
Haley in Napa said in an interview that she often finds that people who aren’t in fields related to criminal justice are often surprised to hear about major changes in California’s laws.
Most people are shocked, she said, to learn that possession of heroin has been downgraded to a misdemeanor charge since voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014 through the initiative process.
“I think that (district attorneys) have done a poor job recently of educating the public about what’s happening,” she said.
The office posted about the new laws on Facebook to inform people who may be disgruntled by the change that the District Attorney’s office is still doing its job, she said. It’s just that the options available to prosecutors have become more limited in recent years.
Haley spoke of other major criminal justice reforms passed recently, such as a bill to allow certain offenders with serious mental health problems to have their charges dismissed and most evidence of their arrest wiped away. Haley pointed to another bill to overhaul California’s bail system, which she deemed “a little bit clumsy” and could still disproportionately affect certain offenders.
She noted that her office doesn’t often attempt to try 14- and 15-year-olds as adults, but the new law could change punishments given to such offenders.
“That absolutely seems to be the way that our voting public is leaning,” she said.