AB 256 will allow those with prior, racially biased convictions to seek justice
SACRAMENTO–Yesterday, AB 256, the California Racial Justice Act for All, was signed by Governor Newsom. AB 256 will allow persons with convictions or judgements prior to January 1, 2021 to petition the court and seek relief if racial bias was proven to be present in their case. AB 256 builds upon landmark legislation in 2020, the California Racial Justice Act, AB 2542 (Kalra, Chapter 317, Statutes of 2020), which allowed individuals to challenge racial bias in criminal charges, convictions, and sentences but was limited to cases after January 1, 2021.
“When we passed the Racial Justice Act, we did so with a promise to not leave behind those with past criminal convictions and sentences that were tainted by systemic racial bias, both explicit and implicit, in our courts. There is still much work to be done, but now AB 256 will provide a valuable tool to meaningfully address the stark racial disparities in our sentencing history,” said Assemblymember Kalra.
Prior to the Racial Justice Act, proving racial bias was nearly impossible because of the 30-year legal precedent set by McCleskey v Kemp. With this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court required California defendants in criminal cases to prove intentional discrimination when challenging racial bias in their case. The original Racial Justice Act finally began to address this issue, but unfortunately the bill was narrowed to prospective cases only, excluding those who had already been harmed by the racial bias and discrimination that permeates our criminal legal system.
With the signage of AB 256, those with past judgements, sentences and convictions prior to January 1, 2021 can petition the court for retroactive relief based on the following phased-in timeline:
- January 1, 2023: individuals facing deportation or sentenced to death
- January 1, 2024: individuals incarcerated for a felony
- January 1, 2025: others with a felony conviction entered after 2015
- January 1, 2026: all others with a felony conviction
Since enactment, the original Racial Justice Act has demonstrated its impact with successful uses, and notably, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times highlights the need to make the law retroactive. The Times had previously exposed the racist comments of a Los Angeles police detective and based on this officer’s conduct, one individual has already made a successful Racial Justice Act challenge leading to the dismissal of the special circumstance allegations in their case. The Times recently reported, “By August 2021, prosecutors concluded they needed to notify defendants of the detective’s comments in more than 200 past cases in which [the officer] had been listed as a potential witness.” AB 256 will now make the Racial Justice Act applicable in those cases, providing people an opportunity to address the harm caused by the officer’s blatant racism.
“The Racial Justice Act for All becoming California Law shows an ongoing commitment from the state to combat racism. We must continue challenging the legacies of racism in all our institutions, and continue fighting for the freedom and relief of those incarcerated,” said Sarah Rigney, Policy Analyst with Initiate Justice.
“Today, California shows that we will leave no one behind on our path to healing the systemic bias and racism that our highest institutions have inherited. We applaud Governor Newsom for taking this historic step in signing the Racial Justice Act for All to expand civil rights protections to imprisoned Californians, among others. Though bruised by amendments, signing the Racial Justice Act for All into law affirms our state’s core values of embracing inclusivity and rejecting the racism that divides us,” said Derick Morgan, Senior Policy Associate with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“Systemic racism in the criminal legal system has devastated the Black community since its inception. Signing The California Racial Justice Act for All into law will directly confront this injustice, clearing a pathway to begin to address some of the impacts of racism for people currently incarcerated. This bill is a step in the right direction,” said Amber-Rose Howard, Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
“AB 256 reaffirms that racism requires redress. No one should be on death row, deported, or in prison because of racism in our courts,” said Natasha Minsker, Policy Advisor for Smart Justice California.
“The League of Women Voters of California believes that racial discrimination is an evil that must be confronted in every sphere – in voting access, in housing, in education, in employment, and now, at long last, in California’s criminal legal system,” said Executive Director, Stephanie Doute. “Fairness demands that the protections of the Racial Justice Act extend to all Californians, and with the signing of this bill, they finally will.”
“AB 256 represents a critical step forward in the fight against racial bias and discrimination in our criminal legal system,” said Mica Doctoroff, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “AB 256 will help to provide justice to incarcerated Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who have borne the deep, harmful impacts of racism.”
“Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have been plagued by racist policies and overrepresented in our prisons and courts for far too long. For those incarcerated due to racial bias, the Racial Justice Act for All provides a path forward to fight the systemic racism that has contaminated our legal system,” said Fatimeh Khan, California Healing Justice Program Co-Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
AB 256 is joint-authored by Assemblymembers Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), Santiago (D-Los Angeles), and Senator Kamlager (D-Los Angeles); principally co-authored by Assemblymember McCarty (D-Sacramento) and Senators Bradford (D-Gardena), and Lena Gonzalez (D- Long Beach); and co-authored by Assemblymembers Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), Bryan (D-Baldwin Hills), Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), Friedman (D-Glendale), Haney (D-San Francisco), Lee (D-San Jose), Levine(D-Marin County), McKinnor (D-Inglewood), Stone (D-Monterey Bay), Ting (D-San Francisco), and Senators Durazo (D-Los Angeles), Laird (D-Santa Cruz), Skinner (D-Berkeley), and Wiener (D-San Francisco).
AB 256 is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Initiate Justice, the League of Women Voters of California, NextGen California, and Silicon Valley De-Bug.
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 currently serves as a member on the Housing and Community Development, Judiciary, Transportation, and Water, Parks, and Wildlife committees.