A new California law allows people to retroactively challenge their criminal convictions or sentences on the basis of racial discrimination.
The Racial Justice Act for All — Assembly Bill (AB) 256 — was sponsored by Assem-bly Member Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and has been signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2023.
This bill comes on the heels of the original Racial Justice Act — AB 2542 — authored by Kalra and passed by the Legislature in 2020.
“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 institutionalized and implicit racial bias in our courts,” said Kalra, according to the Davis Van-guard. “For those incarcerated because of unjust racial bias, AB 256 will extend the possible remedies to cure the harm and seek justice.”
The new Racial Justice Act for All law makes the provisions of the original 2020 law apply retroactively “to ensure equal access to justice for all.”
Section 745 of the Penal Code, which now applies retroactively, reads: “The state shall not seek or obtain a criminal conviction or seek, obtain, or impose a sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. A violation is established if the defendant proves by a preponderance of the evidence, that a judge, district attorney, law enforcement officer, expert witness, juror, etc., uses racially discriminatory language, bias, or animus, whether explicit or implicit.”
This new bill will be implemented in a phased approach beginning Jan. 1, 2023. That means individuals with past judgments, sentences and convictions before 2021 can petition the court for retroactive relief by motion, or by way of a habeas corpus petition using the following timeline: Jan. 1, 2023–Individuals facing deportation or death sentences; Jan. 1, 2024–Individuals incarcerated for a felony; Jan.1, 2025–Others with a felony conviction after 2015; and finally Jan. 1, 2026–All others with a felony conviction.
Both laws were tirelessly supported by a coalition of organizations including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, The ACLU, The League of Women Voters, and California Innocence Coalition among others.
“The Legislature’s passing of the Racial Justice Act for All affirms our state’s core values of embracing inclusivity and rejecting the racism that divides us,” Derick Morgan, senior policy associate with The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, told the Davis Vanguard.
“What this signals to me is that California just moved back to the forefront of recognizing the need to combat racism in our criminal justice system,” Ella Baker Center Campaign Manager James King said in a phone interview with SQNews. “My hope is other states will follow California’s lead.”
Prior to the Act, proving racial bias was nearly impossible because of the 30-year legal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in McClesky v. Kemp (1987). That decision required California defendants in criminal cases to prove intentional discrimination when challenging racial bias in their cases. Under the new law, defendants no longer need to prove intentional discrimination.
“The good thing about this bill,” Kalra said in a phone interview with SQNews, “is that it will allow people to retroactively challenge implicit bias by using a myriad of evidence, including statistics.”