California Bill Would Require Judges To Consider Race of Defendants When Handing Down Criminal Sentences

An outgrowth of the state’s contentious reparations movement, Assembly Bill 852 is aimed at rectifying ‘the racial bias that has historically permeated our criminal justice system.’

AP/Rich Pedroncelli, file
Amos C. Brown Jr., vice chairman of the California Reparations Task Force, right, holds a copy of ‘Songs of Slavery and Emancipation’ as he and other members of the task force pose for photos at the California capitol. AP/Rich Pedroncelli, file

Even as government officials and community leaders across California call for a crackdown on out-of-control crime, state legislators there have signed off on a bill that would require judges to consider criminals’ race when deciding the strictness of sentences to impose on convicted felons.

The measure, which emerged from California’s contentious debate over reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black Americans, passed the assembly in May by a 58-to-13 majority. Democrats hold a supermajority in the assembly, controlling 62 of the seats compared to the Republicans’ 18.

The man behind the bill, Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, represents the state’s 57th district at Los Angeles and has been an outspoken supporter of Governor Newsom’s reparations task force, which produced a 1,000-page report this summer on ways that the state can atone for the sins of slavery, even though it was never legal in California. Among the recommendations are cash payments to descendants of slaves and a variety of legislative measures aimed at undoing centuries of mistreatment of Black Americans.

A couple of months before the task force issued its report, Mr. Jones-Sawyer and his fellow Democrats on the assembly’s public safety committee quietly set out to attempt to steer some of those measures through the state legislature. They began torpedoing various legislative efforts to crack down on crime in the state, including measures on domestic violence, human trafficking, gun violence, and others. The sentencing measure, Bill 852, came out of the same committee in March.

An analysis of the bill prepared before the assembly floor vote cited no opposition to the measure and quotes Mr. Jones-Sawyer as saying that “California’s criminal justice system has long held a bias against particular populations; especially communities of color.” Support for the bill is voiced by the California Public Defenders Association, which says it is a myth that criminal sentencing in California rests on the presumption that all people are treated equally before the law.

“Sentencing outcomes frequently turn on the accused’s wealth, national origin, poverty, and skin-color,” the association states. “AB 852 addresses this problem, in part, by requiring a sentencing judge to consider the disparate impact on historically disenfranchised populations before imposing sentence. While we support AB 852 in principle, we respectfully note our belief that the legislature can and should do more.”

The bill would insert one paragraph into the state Penal Code stating that the measure is aimed at rectifying “the racial bias that has historically permeated our criminal justice system as documented by the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” It would require judges, when considering sentences for convicted criminals, to weigh “the disparate impact on historically disenfranchised and system-impacted populations” when handing down those sentences.

A spokesman for Mr. Jones-Sawyer’s office tells the Sun that the bill, which now sits with the state senate’s public safety committee, is unlikely to emerge from that body this year but can be revisited next year either as it is now written or with changes. The assemblyman’s official website, which touts at least 10 bills he shepherded through the assembly during the most recent session, makes no mention of AB 852.

Among the bill’s critics is the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation. An attorney for the foundation, Andrew Quinio, tells the Sun that it is one of several policy recommendations to emerge from the reparations task force that seek to “inject race into nearly every facet of the state, from government contracting to public education.”

The foundation, he says, is following it and similar efforts that discriminate against the people of California based on race and will challenge them as they pop up. “We will continue to take on any other policies that arise which undermine equal treatment before the law,” Mr. Quinio says.

The New York Sun

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