Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) has introduced SB 300, The Sentencing Reform Act of 2021, to bring sweeping reforms to California’s “felony murder” and special circumstances law.
Right now, in California, there are people on death row and sentenced to die in prison who never killed anyone and never intended for anyone to die.
Current California law mandates a sentence of death or life without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of murder with “special circumstances” (listed in Penal Code section 190.2). These special
circumstances include felony murder. Felony murder is when a death occurs, intentionally or accidentally, during the course of a felony, such as a robbery or burglary. This law applies both to the person whose actions caused the death and to accomplices – individuals who, while involved in the felony, did not kill anyone and did not intend for anyone to die.
SB 300 will address this injustice by allowing for a sentence other than the death penalty or life in prison without parole for a person who did not themselves commit the murder and did not intend for anyone to die.
Tammy Garvin Cooper, for instance, is a formerly incarcerated woman who was sentenced to life without parole after being charged as an unwilling accomplice. “I was incarcerated for 28 years for someone else’s actions under California’s unjust felony murder laws,” says Tammy Garvin Cooper.
“If I wasn’t granted clemency three years ago, I would still be sentenced to die in prison.”
SB 300 by Senator Cortese will provide an avenue for currently incarcerated people to petition the court for resentencing, offering recourse to hundreds – potentially more – of Californians currently awaiting
execution or condemned to die in prison. They will have the opportunity to be resentenced and the possibility to earn parole through rehabilitative programming, work, and good behavior. Given that they never intended for a person to die, nor did they directly cause another person’s death, this will provide them more than just a sentence to die in prison, or to be put to death.
SB 300 will also address the injustice of mandatory life without parole sentences. Under current law, if a special circumstance is found true, the judge has no choice but to sentence a person to life without possibility of parole. SB 300 will return to judges the discretion to dismiss any special circumstance allegation if the judge rules that, in the interest of justice, a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole is more appropriate.
With a strong track record rooted in restorative justice and fighting systemic inequities, SB 300 is one of many major steps Cortese has taken to re-envision our justice system, including establishing the Santa Clara County Blue Ribbon Commission, which led to hundreds of recommendations to improve the treatment of people in custody, halting the construction of a new jail in Santa Clara County in favor of a Behavioral Health Center to treat people with mental illness, and creating the first policy in the United States to halt the incarceration of offenders under 13 years of age at Juvenile Hall.
“Our felony murder laws are emblematic of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today,” says Senator Dave Cortese. “Californian’s may not realize that people who did not commit murder are being charged for murder and are being given harsher punishments than those that did.”
For Senator Cortese, his decision to introduce SB 300 is rooted in social justice and was influenced by the nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice we have seen this past year.
“We are at a pivotal moment in our country’s history. SB 300 is one of many steps we must take to dismantle systematic racism and inequities embedded in so many areas of our governmental structure, including our criminal justice system,” says Cortese.
Using data from the state department of corrections, the Felony Murder Elimination Project estimates that taxpayers pay $91,000 person per year to incarcerate a person if that persons is young and healthy; and over $150,000 per year for an older person.
Nineteen is the average age of a person at the time of the offense for which a life without parole sentence is imposed due to a special circumstance finding. There are currently over 5100 people serving life without parole sentences, 3221 of whom were 25 years or younger at the time of the offense. It was a first offense for over 3700 of these individuals. The racial disparity of those serving life without parole is shocking, as Black and Latinx individuals make up 68% of this population.
“Californians are paying a staggering price to incarcerate individuals for life who neither caused nor intended to cause a death. We are proud to sponsor this vital legislation because there are currently over 5,100 people serving life without parole sentences,” said Joanne Sheer, Founder of Felony Murder Elimination Project and proud mother of a person who would be positively impacted by this bill.
Raj Jayadev is the Coordinator of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a co-sponsor of SB 300, and works with families whose loved ones are facing excessive prison sentences across the state. Jayadev says, “SB 300 is about
addressing the devastation of an irrational fear-based sentencing law that has broken apart families, taken lives, and decimated communities with generational devastation. Our De-Bug community is made up of these families, who have seen other powerful reforms leave their incarcerated loved ones behind, and today they insert their fight and righteous call for justice for a new day of freedom and healing for California.”
“The racial disparity of those serving life without parole is shocking. This vitally-needed legislation is an important step in addressing California’s long history of racist and draconian laws,” said Emily Harris, Policy Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, one of the groups co-sponsoring SB 300.
Senator Nancy Skinner’s (D-Berkeley) SB 1437, that became law in 2018, also tackled California’s unjust felony murder rule, by reserving murder charges and punishment to those that actually commit murder in most cases. SB 1437 also allowed those convicted the opportunity to be resentenced to a lower sentence. SB 1437 did not, however, address felony murder cases under the special circumstances law. Governor Gavin Newsom has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in California for as long as he is serving as Governor.
SB 300 by Senator Cortese would need a 2/3rds vote in both houses of the Legislature and Governor Newsom’s signature to become law.