SACRAMENTO, CA – Assemblymember Marc Levine (D – Marin County) last week announced legislation to reduce use of California’s failed death penalty by restoring judicial discretion in felony criminal sentences. AB 1224 (Levine), sponsored by the California Public Defenders Association, would allow a judge to dismiss a special circumstance finding, including authority to dismiss findings on the basis of the individual’s conduct in prison after they were sentenced, among other criteria.
In March 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on the death penalty and had the death chamber at San Quentin State Prison dismantled. San Quentin is located in Levine’s Marin County district. Governor Newsom’s moratorium halted future executions during his term as governor, but did not stop individuals from receiving a death sentence, most often as a result of a special circumstance finding. A special circumstance finding requires the individual to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. There are no exceptions – not even for youthful offenders or individuals that have demonstrably matured and rehabilitated or are suffering from a fatal illness.
AB 1224 would allow a judge to consider any relevant circumstances, including public safety; the individual’s conduct since the conviction; their age at the time of the offense and their present age; the diminished culpability of youthful offenders; the individual’s growth and maturity since the conviction; their present state of mental and physical health, including consideration of reasonable prognoses for their future health and longevity; whether they served in the military and the impact of their military service; and whether they were the victim of intimate partner violence or sexual exploitation, and how it affected them. The bill would establish a presumption that the special circumstance finding should be dismissed where the individual has served more than 20 years since the crime without committing or attempting to commit an act of violence against any other person.
“This bill creates a pathway to justice for people who have changed,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “Whether they were convicted long ago, at a young age, or subjected to a two-tiered system of justice that places the value of some lives above others, to keep them locked away for life without the possibility of parole is a grave injustice to them and their families.”
California’s Death Row is the largest in the United States with 711 condemned prisoners. Since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978, California has executed only thirteen individuals, costing taxpayers over $5 billion. Black and Latino persons represent 67% of California’s Death Row population, leading criminal justice reform advocates to question whether race has been improperly factored into death penalty sentences. Along with DNA evidence that has proven the innocence of 150 Death Row inmates across the nation, there is growing consensus that the death penalty has failed to achieve its stated public safety goals and should be abolished.
Under AB 1224, the 711 people currently on Death Row and approximately 5,200 other incarcerated people in California would be eligible for resentencing consideration.
“California must end its broken and racially biased death penalty once and for all,” said Assemblymember Levine. “Short of the death penalty’s elimination, we must also look at how our criminal justice system has failed us by sending more people to Death Row than any other state in the nation. A sentence of death is the most serious form of punishment in our society. If it must exist, it should be used with the greatest level of judicial restraint. Yet California’s laws have been written to make it easier for an individual to be sentenced to death. Our society has not deterred serious crime because of the death penalty. Our neighborhoods are not safer because of the death penalty. Our state’s embrace of the death penalty has only fostered a culture of vengeance and an immoral acceptance of death at the hand of the state.”
Earlier this year, Levine introduced ACA 2, a constitutional amendment that would permanently end the death penalty in California. ACA 2 and AB 1224 will be considered by the State Assembly later this Spring.