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California Lawmakers Consider Race-Based Sentencing Bill as Part of Reparation Efforts

A controversial bill designed to allow California judges to consider race when sentencing offenders is winding its way through the legislative process, having passed the Assembly with no Republican support and some Democrats abstaining from the vote.

Assembly Bill 852, a succinct proposal comprised of two sentences and authored by Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), builds on the recommendations provided by the state’s reparations task force—which recently presented its findings to the governor and Legislature in a 1,100-page report, including guidance for cash payments and criminal justice reform.

The measure’s brief text begins by declaring the intent of the Legislature to address and “rectify the racial bias that has historically permeated our criminal justice system” and ends with a directive to courts to consider the “disparate impact on historically disenfranchised and system-impacted populations.”

The author mentioned the reparations task force report when arguing in support of the bill in the analysis provided to the Assembly.

“California’s criminal justice system has long held a bias against particular populations; especially communities of color,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer said. “AB 852 requires state courts to consider the disparate impact on historically disenfranchised and system-impacted people when sentencing.”

Epoch Times Photo
(L-R) State Sen. Steven Bradford, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, task force member Lisa Holder, and Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer hold up a final report of the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans during a hearing in Sacramento on June 29, 2023. The report heads to lawmakers who will be responsible for turning policy recommendations into legislation. Reparations will not happen until lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom agree. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

The only group listed in support of the measure is the California Public Defenders Association, with the organization providing commentary to the Public Safety Committee’s analysis of the proposal, doubting the current legal presumption that all are treated equally under the law.

“Sadly, as every study to consider the issue has determined—that presumption is a myth,” the group said. “In fact, sentencing outcomes frequently turn on the accused’s wealth, national origin, poverty, and skin color.”

The safety committee’s analysis referenced a study conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission—a group that demonstrated black inmates received federal sentences on average of 7.9 to 19.1 percent higher than white inmates for the same crime and accounting for a number of variables including criminal history, with statistics last updated March 23.

A study conducted by the Judicial Council of California showed no statistical difference in sentences in the state for similar crimes based on race and ethnicity, though its author highlighted the rates by which offenders are sent to prison for similar crimes based on race: 36.5 percent for black, 35.4 for Hispanic, 28.2 for white, and 27.9 for Asian.

Though sponsoring the measure, the public defenders argued that the bill is limited in scope and works toward a solution without providing one entirely.

“While we support AB 852 in principle, we respectfully note our belief that the [L]egislature can and should do more,” the group said. “Nonetheless, while requiring a judge to consider whether they may be continuing a statewide pattern of disparate sentencing for poor or marginalized groups before imposing sentence is certainly not the final step in meaningful reform, it is a step in the right direction.”

Victims Forgotten by Proposal: Critics

No opposition was listed in the committee or Assembly analyses, but the bill has faced resistance from Republican lawmakers, with some suggesting the bill is more impactful than its limited verbiage and posturing from supporters implies.

“It is being presented in a manner that makes it appear like it’s not a big deal,” Assemblyman Bill Essayli (R-Riverside) told The Epoch Times. “But if you look at the language, it actually changes the penal code. It’s a directive to judges.”

By definition, the bill would add a section to the penal code with instructions to judges and officers of the court that racial disparities shall be considered when levying sentences.

Opponents of the measure said the proposal fails to address the root causes of violent crime and criminal activity in the state.

“I don’t think the best way to deal with racial inequality is to let people out of prison or give different sentences to different racial groups,” Mr. Essayli said. “We need to look at the education system … and the makeup of violent crime victims.”

One former Assembly candidate in 2022 with a lengthy career in law enforcement that spanned nearly four decades said the bill will jeopardize public safety and the reputation of the criminal justice system if it passes the Legislature.

“What this bill is telling judges to be is racist,” Burton Brink, of the Los Angeles County area, told The Epoch Times. “Telling a judge that they should be racist and give a person that is black, Hispanic, Asian, or white a different sentence than anyone else for the exact same crime is asinine.”

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Inmates at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, Calif. (Mario Tama/File Photo/Getty Images)

Questioning the veracity of a bill that claims to address racial inequality by mandating racial inequality, the retired sergeant for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department said that justice is and must be blind.

“If you commit a crime, I don’t care what color you are or what the crime is, you need to be held responsible for that crime,” Mr. Brink said. “Justice does not have a racial bone in its body, and politicians have forced race into it.”

A growing political divide between lawmakers regarding how to proceed with a variety of issues related to criminal justice, including child sex trafficking, fentanyl distribution, and sentencing reform, is both a concern and an opportunity to come together and find solutions, according to lawmakers.

One member that voted against the new sentencing guidelines measure said the priorities of the Legislature need to be recalibrated, suggesting that offenders are over-represented in the process while victims are forgotten.

“They seem to be only fixated with criminals and letting them out of prison,” Mr. Essayli—the Assemblyman from Riverside—told The Epoch Times. “This is their new radical ideology: it’s just about the criminals. They don’t care about the kids, the victims, they don’t care about anything else, and this is an odd tunnel vision approach.”

The bill is now scheduled to be heard by the Senate Public Safety Committee—with the date yet to be announced—once legislative meetings resume in August following the summer recess.


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