Silicon Valley Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose)—a former deputy public defender in Santa Clara County—has introduced new legislation to end racial discrimination in criminal sentences and convictions.
Assembly Bill 2542, better known as the California Racial Justice Act, would prohibit the state from convicting or imposing a sentence based on race, ethnicity or national origin.
According to a press release from Kalra’s office, the bill aims to counter McCleskey v. Kemp—a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case that required defendants to prove intentional discrimination when challenging racial bias.
“As lawmakers, we can no longer accept the pervasive issues in our criminal justice system as unfixable—that is why we need to take the next step forward by prohibiting the use of race and ethnicity as a factor in the state’s justice system across the board,” Kalra explained in a Monday afternoon announcement about the bill. “We either do everything in our power to root out systemic racism from our criminal justice system, or allow our proclamations of justice and equality for all to ring hollow.”
If signed into law, the act would allow an individual who’s been charged or convicted of a crime to challenge racial basis based on:
- Explicit bias from an attorney, juror, judge, expert witness or law enforcement officer
- The use of racially discriminatory language during court hearings
- Bias in jury selection, which could include the removal of all people of color from the jury
- A disparity in charging or convicting people of one race at a higher rate
- A disparity in giving people of one race harsher sentences
The bill is co-authored by state senators Steve Bradford (D-Gardena), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles and Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach).
“We do not live in a colorblind society,” Mitchell said. “Statistics show Black people are more likely to receive a death sentence than a white person for the same crime. Racial bias and discrimination determines countless cases, sending innocent men and women behind bars. The California Racial Justice Act is an important step in reforming our criminal justice system while subsequently challenging our racist ideologies.”
The California Racial Justice Act has been sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the League of Women Voters of California and NextGen.
Amber Rose Howard, executive director of the Californians United for a Responsible Budget, said the proposed law aims to “defend Black lives by allowing California to confront systemic racism in the criminal legal system.”
“People all over the country are calling for an end to state violence against Black people, and this bill reminds us that state violence begins in the community and is extended in the courts and in sentencing,” she said. “Passing this policy means addressing mass incarceration at the root and … tackl[ing] the impacts of racism as we know it.”