It’s hard to get laws changed, even harder to make any revisions applicable to people already serving their time, nevertheless Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) retroactively transformed California’s felony-murder law with the help of the Re:store Justice organization and others.
“Retroactivity was the hardest part, yet it was essential because how can we fix the law, how can we tell people convicted under the unfair rule, sorry stay in prison,” Senator Skinner said. “It’s not right.”
Re:store Justice Policy Director Professor Kate Chatfield, who was the main drafter of the original bill, talked about the help it took to get the law changed. “We had the support of many grassroots organizations, and families of incarcerated people wrote letters, came to the capitol and made their loved ones human through their stories.”
Since 1978, California’s felony murder rule allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty, life without the possibility of parole or a life sentence for anyone involved in a crime that resulted in a murder, even if they didn’t have anything to do with the actual killing and didn’t intend for someone to die. Participation in specified felonies like robbery or carjacking was enough for an accomplice to receive a first-degree murder conviction.
The California Supreme Court spoke against the felony murder rule back in 1983, calling it an outdated `barbaric’ concept,” according to a Rolling Stone article. A survey found that 72 percent of the women convicted of murder in California did not personally kill anyone. The survey was done by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and Re:store Justice. It also found that the average age of someone convicted as an accomplice to murder is 20 years old, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Past attempts to change the felony murder rule did not make it out of committee, according to Mariah Watson, a legislative aide to Senator Skinner, who also worked on the felony-murder rule bill SB 1437.
The success of the felony-murder rule revision happened when a team of passionate people joined with Senator Skinner.
“She put her heart and soul into this bill,” Watson said.
Mallick previously worked at Human Rights Watch and volunteers at San Quentin. She started Re:store Justice in Oct. 2017.
Mallick asked Chatfield, “What could be done?”
Since law school, Chatfield has felt the felony-murder rule was unjust.
“It’s unfair one could be guilty of murder in California with no intention to kill,” Chatfield said. “The basis of the criminal justice system is fair punishment. I’m not for accomplice punishment with a life sentence for the actions of another.”
Chatfield, a University of San Francisco School of Law professor, had her students research felony murder in California and other states. Then she drafted a bill.
Mallick proposed the bill to Senator Skinner.
“In California, we pride ourselves on being progressive, on being leaders on so many issues, intellectuals on the environment…but when we look at our criminal justice system, we are the poster child of mass incarceration,” Senator Skinner said. “When we look at who is in prison, it’s poor people and people of color. There’s something wrong here, something unfair. That’s why I’m passionate about criminal justice.” Senator Skinner approved of the bill and decided to seek to change the felony-murder rule so that people without the intent to kill and who didn’t do anything to aid the killing are no longer held liable for a murder committed by their co-defendant during the commission of another crime. There is one exception to the revised felony-murder rule. In cases involving the murder of a peace officer act- ing in the line of duty, where the defendant knew or should have reasonably known the person was a peace officer, relief is not available.
Watson, Senator Skinner’s former aid, took on many of the duties associated with getting the bill passed.
Watson said she’s motivated to see positive changes in the criminal justice system. The woman, from Inglewood, California, has a brother who has been in and out of prison since she was six. Watson worked to get Senate Bill 1437 passed for three years.
At first, a senate resolution was presented to state legisators, asking that the felony murder rule be addressed. In 2017, the lawmakers voted to do something about the felony-murder rule and Senator Skinner came back with SB 1437.
About 55 organizations sponsored SB 1437. Chatfield named ARC, Youth Justice Coalition and Felony Murder Elimination Project among them.
Watson spoke of the many mothers who fought to get their offspring out of prison, like Tina Marie. Even before Re:store Justice presented the bill, Marie came to Senator Skinner’s office seeking help for her child in prison under the old felony-murder rule, and she never stopped check- ing in until the law changed.
“Seeing mothers fighting so hard to have any hope—I felt it personally,” Watson said.
The bill also had bipartisan support from Republican Senator Joel Anderson.
District Attorneys argued against making the bill retroactive.
“District attorneys felt that the law would in- crease their workload,” Chatfield said. “It would be confusing to see who’s eligible, so some district attorneys lobbied hard against us.”
Senator Skinner argued they can better use the $80,000 a year they save by letting people out on this law, according to the Rolling Stones article.
The bill passed through the numerous stages of the state legislature.
Senator Skinner and Watson hugged on the assembly floor when, after an hour and a half, the bill got enough votes to move on to the governor’s desk.
“It was personal to me,” Watson said. “If it didn’t pass, we would have to see the faces of all the mothers. Re:store would have to see people who, if it didn’t pass, wouldn’t be coming home.”
On Sept. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law.
“Senator Skinner is a warrior for incarcerated people,” Mallick said. “She is bringing so much hope to families around the state.”
A resentencing guide and petition are available free at www.restorecal.org. Additionally, Re:store Justice is touring all California prisons to teach people how to file for relief under the new felony-murder law.