AB 333, which was introduced by Senator Sydney K. Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) who is labeling it the The STEP Forward Act, was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.
This bill would also require that the crimes committed to form a pattern of criminal gang activity have commonly benefited a criminal street gang and that the common benefit from the offenses be more than reputational, as specified. The bill would remove burglary, looting, felony vandalism, and specified personal identity fraud violations from the crimes that define a pattern of criminal gang activity. The bill would prohibit the use of the currently charged crime to prove the pattern of criminal gang activity.
The bill also states:
This bill would require, if requested by the defense in a case where a sentencing enhancement for participation in a criminal street gang is charged, that the defendant’s guilt of the underlying offense first be proved and that a further proceeding on the sentencing enhancement occur after a finding of guilt. The bill would require that a charge for active participation in a criminal street gang be tried separately from all other counts that do not otherwise require gang evidence as an element of the crime.
This bill, instead, would define “criminal street gang” as an ongoing, organized organization or group of 3 or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the enumerated criminal acts, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members collectively engage in, or have engaged in, a pattern of criminal gang activity.
The California District Attorney’s Association (CDAA) issued a statement on Sept. 3 calling the legislation “Dangerous” and would protect gang member while being a “bad faith move by the bills author”.
Dubbed by law enforcement opponents across California as “The Gang Member Protection Act of 2021,” Kamlager’s legislation would limit the charges that prosecutors could bring against violent criminal street gang members, the majority of whom operate in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they use violence and threats of retribution to terrorize victims and silence witnesses.
CDAA had negotiated in good faith what it believed was an agreement to amend the bill so that prosecutors did not have to prove that a gang was “organized,” in order to bring appropriate charges. Gang prosecutors across California had repeatedly advised Senator Kamlager that many violent, criminal street gangs do not operate according to any organizational structure or hierarchy. While CDAA waited in good faith to hear if an agreement had been reached, Kamlager instead took the bill up for a vote where it was approved without benefit of a full and fair debate.
“Sadly, this was a bad faith move, designed to advance this reckless legislation without giving legislators an opportunity to hear how seriously flawed it really is,” said Vern Pierson, president of CDAA. “Prosecutors and law enforcement across California are united in their view that AB 333 is little more than a gift to violent criminal street gangs. It will make our communities even more vulnerable to the predatory actions of gang members,” he added.
Some argue that punishing gang involvement did little to decrease crime while “branding young people” and its critical legislation in reducing racial disparities in sentencing.
Press Release by Senator Kamlager:
Senator Kamlager’s Landmark Legislation Around Criminal Justice Reform, AB 333 and AB 124, Signed Into Law
SACRAMENTO, CA — Today, two key bills of Senator Sydney Kamlager’s criminal justice legislation, AB 333: Gang Enhancements and AB 124: Justice for Survivors were signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.
“It’s long been shown that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to sentencing does little to improve recidivism rates and improve public safety,” said Senator Kamlager. “It is time our laws reflect the data we have about how and why people enter the system, and how best to keep them from re-entering.”
AB 333: Gang Enhancements, known as the “STEP Forward Act”, has a broad coalition of support, driven to revise racist sentencing laws. The bill, now law, takes the first step towards addressing the pain caused by gang enhancements.
“We’re re-injecting due process back into the criminal legal system–where it should’ve been all along,” continued Senator Kamlager. “I’m thrilled to see Governor Newsom sign AB 333 into law. Gang enhancements have long been used against people of color far more frequently than their white counterparts. With today’s signing, we’re making progress on our promise to root out discrimination where we see it.”
Currently, gang enhancement statutes have vague definitions, weak standards of proof, and are perhaps the most racially discriminatory part of the criminal justice system: 92% of people with gang enhancements in California are people of color.
“People should not be criminalized because of the neighborhoods they live in, families they were born into, or other factors outside their control,” said a spokesperson for NextGen Policy, a co-sponsor of the bill. “And they shouldn’t lose an additional 5, 10, 20 or more years of their liberty without adequate proof or due process. This bill provides long overdue, commonsense reforms to curb the rampant and devastating application of gang enhancements to people of color from overpoliced and under-resourced communities. We are excited to see it signed into law.”
As shared by Senator Kamlager on the Senate Floor, the bill reduces the list of crimes under which use of the current charge alone creates proof of a “pattern” of criminal gang activity, and separates gang allegations from underlying charges at trial.
“Gang enhancements exacerbate racial inequities in our criminal legal system,” added a spokesperson from Anti-Recidivism Coalition, who also co-sponsored AB 333. “They target people of color and people in low-income neighborhoods — criminalizing relationships within those communities. In fact, research shows that 92% of people who receive gang enhancements are people of color. We’re relieved that California is taking steps to address this area of deep racism.”
AB 333 was based on a recommendation from the newly formed Committee on Revision of the Penal Code. Michael Romano, Chair of the Committee, said “I am deeply grateful to Senator Kamlager for authoring and Governor Newsom for signing AB 333. The Committee on Revision of the Penal Code is committed to improving public safety for all Californians while reducing unnecessary incarceration and inequity in the criminal legal system. AB 333 is an important step towards those goals.”
Another key component of Senator Kamlager’s criminal justice legislation, AB 124: Justice for Survivors, was also signed into law. The bill would support survivors of violence including human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence by providing trauma-informed sentencing relief and trial advocacy considerations.
“AB 124 is survivor-centered. It seeks to re-insert flexibility, dignity, and reality into the decision-making processes to ensure that courts weigh the full context of a victim’s experiences and traumas,” said Senator Kamlager.
Senator Kamlager previously shared in committee how nearly 60% of female state prisoners nationwide and as many as 94% of certain female prison populations experienced physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated. AB 124: Justice for Survivors, a California Legislative Women’s Caucus (CLWC) priority, seeks to support survivors by requiring a holistic, trauma-informed approach in sentencing.
“Passing AB 124 has brought us one step closer to achieving justice for survivors in California,” said Amika Mota, Policy Director, Young Women’s Freedom Center. “But the real power of AB 124 lies in sharing with the world the complex narrative that surrounds survivors, and the criminalization of girls, women, and trans and gender non-conforming folks. We hope the supporters of this bill will continue to fight for all survivors in the years to come.”
“Survivors who are predominantly Black, brown, and indigenous women, queer, and trans people are often arrested and punished as a result of their exploitation and abuse,” added Jasmine Amons, Senior Program & Policy Coordinator, National Center for Youth Law. “The passage of AB 124 represents long overdue criminal justice reform that allows courts to meaningfully consider the effects of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking on survivors and respond accordingly.”
“We applaud Governor Newsom for signing AB 124 into law, creating real opportunities to divert survivors from suffering the additional abuse of criminalization,” noted Colby Lenz, Co-founder, Survived & Punished. “We look forward to partnering with the Governor to ensure survivors’ needs are met by robust community-based services across California, not criminalization.”
“Passing and signing AB 124 Justice for Survivors Act into law is a first step in creating a meaningful and holistic path for criminalized survivors,” noted Aminah Elster, Campaign & Policy Coordinator, California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). “With much work still to be done, CCWP is committed to seeing that all survivors have access to considerations that allow for equity and healing instead of incarceration and punishment for acts of survival.”
“Free to Thrive is thrilled that AB 124 was signed into law,” added Jamie Beck, President & Managing Attorney, Free to Thrive. “This bill will help so many survivors get the justice they deserve by helping the criminal justice system understand that they are victims, not criminals.”
AB 333 and AB 124 will take effect on January 1, 2022.