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SB 1437 Successful Case, 2019
SB 1437 Successful Case, 2019
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Governor Gavin Newsom recommends for Commutation the Application of a Barhoma Law, P.C. Client who spent nearly three decades behind bars.

Barhoma Law, P.C. receives the Commutation Recommendation from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office. The Barhoma Law, P.C. client may soon be walking free. Historically, Governors will wait and issue a number of Commutations and other Pardons at the end of their term. However, Governor Newsom has elected to issue commutations more periodically. And in making these issuance, he has recieved and reviewed the Commutation Application of a deserving Barhoma Law Client and has recommended his sentence to be commuted.

Traditionally, the Governor’s office has free reign and control to commute sentences in any way they deem fit. One thing the Governor’s office can do is recommend a sentence for commutation by sending the case, alongside the commutation recommendation, to the office of the Parole Board, who will put together a review and hold a hearing. Once that’s completed successfully, it will be sent back to the Governor’s office for final commutation. This particular Barhoma Law client may soon be walking free after nearly 30 years of incarceration.

The concept that children behave differently than adults is nothing new. Children lack the impulse control and foresight that adults do, resulting in them having less appreciation for their actions. However, until relatively recently, the criminal law did not consider a person’s age or its effect on their actions and ability to be rehabilitated. A Franklin hearing is a procedural mechanism that allows a person convicted of a serious crime to present evidence of their youthfulness, not to excuse their actions but to put them into context.

Franklin hearings arose out of a 2016 case involving a 16-year-old boy who shot and killed another teenager. At trial, Tyris Lamar Franklin was sentenced to a total term of 50 years to life. On appeal, Franklin argued that his sentence was the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole. Previously, the California Supreme Court determined that juveniles found guilty of non-homicide offenses could not be sentenced to the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole. Franklin argued that his 50-plus year sentence qualified as such, and sought relief.

The court denied Franklin the relief he was seeking, noting that subsequent changes to California law allowed Franklin a parole hearing after 25 years. However, under existing state law, at Franklin’s eventual parole hearing, the parole board must “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and any subsequent growth and increased maturity.” Because Franklin was sentenced before these changes went into effect, he did not have an opportunity to put this evidence on the record.

For decades, California had the largest prison system of all U.S. states. However, in more recent years, sociological and scientific research indicated that the effects of mass incarceration can do much more harm than good. For example, a 2019 study conducted by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office notes that the average annual cost to incarcerate one person exceeds $80,000. Of course, ending mass incarceration not only provides economic and societal benefits but is also the right thing to do from a human rights perspective.

California lawmakers have been on the forefront of criminal justice reform. Most recently, California Governor, Gavin Newsome, announced a policy by which 76,000 inmates will become eligible for early release. The measure is designed to incentivize good conduct while incarcerated, allowing inmates to more easily use early release credits to get out of jail. More specifically, under the new rule, an inmate can use good behavior credits to shorten their sentence by up to one-third. Previously, there most a sentence could be reduced was one-fifth.

Unlike many other criminal justice reform measures, this new rule applies broadly to inmates convicted of all types of offenses, including those convicted of violent crimes. According to a recent report by the Associated Press, 63,000 of the inmates who will become eligible for earlier release are serving time for a violent offense. The new rule will also allow approximately 20,000 inmates currently serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole to qualify for early release. In part, the reason why this figure is so high is that other criminal justice reform measures have overlooked this population.

In recent years, there has been widespread recognition of the harms that come from over incarceration. Whether it be due to improper policing or overly punitive sentencing schemes, the current criminal justice system does not strike a fair balance between protecting society from harm and focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders. California lawmakers are among the first to implement significant policy changes to address these concerns.

Over the past few years, California has implemented a slew of criminal justice reforms designed to fix what many are finally recognizing is a broken system. Below are a few of the most notable reform policies.

Special Directives

Recently, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County, George Gascon, issued a set of “special directives” focused on creating a fairer criminal justice system. The special directives are broad in scope and address a wide range of problems with the current system. For example, the special directives address pre-trial incarceration, police misconduct, sentencing enhancement, youthful offenders, and established a “conviction integrity unit” that provides for the review of previously obtained convictions.

AB 1509

Gun crimes bring along some of the most significant penalties, even for mere possession of a firearm. Part of the problem when it comes to the inequities of gun sentencing laws stems from duplicative punishment. For example, under the current system, a person found guilty of using a gun during the commission of a crime would face punishment for the underlying crime, possession or use of the gun, as well as a sentencing enhancement for having or using a gun while committing a crime. Recently California lawmakers proposed AB 1509, which would drastically reduce sentencing enhancements for gun crimes.

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Earlier this year, Assembly Member Alex Lee (D-San Jose) introduced AB 1509, named the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act. If passed, the bill would drastically reduce the sentencing enhancements courts use to sentence those convicted of having a gun in their possession when they committed the underlying offense. Lee explains that the practical effect of the current sentencing enhancement laws has a disproportionate impact on People of Color, noting that 89 percent of those incarcerated based on these enhancements are People of Color.

How Do Sentencing Enhancements Work?

A sentencing enhancement is an increase in the maximum allowable punishment that is based on a certain fact. In the case of gun-sentencing enhancements, a person convicted of certain crimes will face a significantly longer sentence because they carried a gun when they committed the offense. However, sentencing enhancements are duplicative and unnecessary, as the law allows for a person who has a gun when committing another offense to be charged with the underlying offense as well as for possession of a gun. In other words, under the current state of the law, if you were to commit a robbery while carrying a gun, you would face robbery charges, gun charges, as well as a sentencing enhancement.

How Would AB 1509 Change Gun-Sentencing Enhancements?

If AB 1509 passes, it would significantly reduce—although not eliminate—the sentencing enhancements for those convicted of certain crimes while carrying or using a gun. For example, under the current framework, the sentencing enhancements are as follows:

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Senate Bill 1437, passed back in 2019, significantly changed how California homicide offenses were charged. More specifically, SB 1437 prohibited prosecutions for first- or second-degree murder for someone who was “not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

As a result of SB 1437’s passage, many defendants who were convicted of murder crimes were eligible to have their convictions reviewed by the court to determine if they were eligible for relief. However, there is a major gap in SB 1437, because it does not apply to those found guilty of California manslaughter offenses.

While, initially, it may seem like this makes sense, as those convicted of murder are likely serving much longer sentences, a recent article highlights the current inequities of SB 1437. The article describes the case of a man who was alleged to have been involved in a robbery of a brothel. Evidently, the defendant waited outside as his friend ran inside the brothel alone, shooting and killing one of the occupants.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a California homicide case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to relief under SB 1437. However, the court held that, under California Supreme Court case law, a petition for relief under SB 1437 is not cognizable on appeal, and must first be filed with the trial court. The opinion illustrates the complexity of the procedural rules that govern post-conviction matters generally, but also especially those seeking relief under SB 1437.

Passed in 2017, SB 1437 is a criminal justice reform law that precludes the prosecution from pursuing first- or second-degree murder charges in certain situations. It also provides a mechanism for defendants to petition the court for a re-sentencing hearing, if they were convicted of an offense that they could no longer be convicted of. A re-sentencing under SB 1437 is available if the defendant meets each of the following elements:

  1. The charging document allowed the prosecution to pursue a conviction under a theory of first-degree felony murder or through the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine;
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For decades, criminal law was seen as a “one-way ratchet” in that, whenever changes were made to the criminal law, they almost always made the laws stricter. Typically, this is a function of high crime rates, and the political pressure lawmakers face from their constituents. Generally, lawmakers do not want to be seen as being “soft” on crime, so they continually propose increasingly strict laws to prove they mean business. However, California constitutional law provides citizens the ability to propose ballot initiatives. If someone can get enough signatures to support a ballot initiative, the entire state will vote on the initiative and, if it passes, it will become law. This is what happened with California’s Proposition 57.

Proposition 57, or Prop 57, as it is more commonly known, is a ballot initiative passed in 2016. Prop 57 implements broad criminal justice reform as it pertains to parole consideration and juvenile offenders. Proponents of Prop 57 emphasized that the continued incarceration of many inmates was not only overly harsh, but wasted tens of millions of dollars a year in valuable tax revenue.

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Under the terms of Prop 57, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must allow for defendants convicted of certain non-violent crimes to be considered for parole upon completing their sentence for the primary offense. Previously, various sentencing enhancements could keep someone in jail longer than their original sentence; for example, if they had committed multiple crimes against multiple victims. Prop 57 eliminates the requirement that defendants serve the enhanced portion of the sentence, allowing for earlier parole consideration.

The Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA, the “Act”) is a federal law that provides mandatory sentences for those convicted of possessing a gun after having previously been convicted of a violent felony offense. The ACCA was passed back in 1984, when gun violence was plaguing the country. Federal prosecutors in California regularly use the ACCA to obtain hefty sentences against defendants, even when the prior felony offenses occurred long in the past. Often, prosecutors will use a defendant’s potential exposure under the ACCA to coerce them into accepting a plea deal.

However, since the passage of the ACCA, courts across the country have been inundated with cases, asking them to flesh out the details of what constitutes a “predicate offense” under the Act. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that every state defines its criminal laws differently, and what may be commonly considered a “violent felony,” may not have actually involved any allegations of violence. The specific definition of a “violent felony,” under the ACCA is any crime that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a case in which the defendant was charged under the ACCA. Evidently, the defendant was arrested after police found a gun in his car during a traffic top. The defendant pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession, and proceeded to sentencing. At sentencing, the prosecution claimed that the ACCA should apply, because the defendant was previously convicted of several “violent felonies” in Tennessee.

Police and prosecutors are eager to use anything they can to identify a suspect and obtain a conviction, especially in the most serious cases, such as California homicide crimes. However, often this comes at the expense of—rather than the pursuit of—justice.

For example, take a recent New York Times article discussing the use of facial recognition software. Racial recognition software relies on computers to recognize human faces. In the law enforcement context, this usually involves a police officer inputting a suspect’s photo into the program, which then searches through a database of thousands of photos, looking for a match. Police will occasionally use facial recognition software if they have surveillance video or a still-frame photo, but do not know who it is in the photo.

According to the New York Times article, the use of facial recognition software was used to arrest a man for a crime he did not commit. Evidently, police received a report of a man stealing candy. When police arrived on the scene, they found the suspect at a rental car agency, trying to get his rental extended. The suspect gave them an ID card, apologized, and offered to pay for the candy.

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