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Articles Posted in Criminal Appeals

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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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.

Last month, the California Supreme Court released its opinion in a case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to a resentencing hearing under Senate Bill 1437 (SB 1437). The case illustrates the power of SB 1437, and what it means for those serving lengthy prison terms for California murder convictions.

The Facts

Back in 2014, the defendant was arrested for murder. The prosecution and defense offered very different versions of the events leading up to the victim’s death. According to the defense, a woman told the defendant that the victim had been raping her. At this point, the defendant punched the victim in the face, and the woman began attacking the victim with what the defendant thought was a sledgehammer. The defendant denies ever using a weapon to strike the victim, who later died. The defendant’s DNA was found on cigarette butts at the scene.

The defendant was arrested for first-degree murder, based largely on the woman’s testimony. He was convicted, but that conviction was later reduced to a second-degree murder conviction based on his initial appeal. However, after the passage of SB 1437, the defendant filed a post-conviction motion, asking the court to vacate his sentence for second-degree murder.

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Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in an inmate’s claim that the conditions in which he was housed violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. While the case arose out of a federal prison in Texas, it illustrates the prison conditions throughout state and federal prisons in California. The opinion was a welcome step towards the High Court recognizing the inhumane conditions many men and women face after being convicted of a serious crime.

The Facts of the Case

In the case, the petitioner, Trent Taylor, was convicted of armed robbery and given a sentence of 11 years’ incarceration. While he was serving his sentence at a federal prison, Taylor alleged that prison staff kept him in unsanitary conditions that violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment.

On December 7, 2020, George Gascon was sworn in as the new District Attorney, defeating the previous District Attorney, Jackie Lacey. With his swearing in comes sweeping reforms and promises to re-open thousands of old cases. In his sweeping reforms, Mr. Gascon provides for retroactive applications, removing gun enhancements, gang enhancements, Three Strikes Law and materially changing juvenile laws.

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Traditionally, reforms are non-retroactive, meaning they do not apply to prior judgments or convictions. However, in Mr. Gascon’s sweeping reform, his office is now applying these reforms retroactively. That means that many of the new changes will affect old convictions from the past, regardless of when they took place.

In this post, Attorney Matthew Barhoma, founder of Barhoma Law, P.C. and California Criminal Appeals Attorney highlights the new changes and outlines how they will affect general cases. To learn how District Attorney, George Gascon’s, sweeping reform may affect your case, please consult with a Criminal Appeals and Post Conviction attorney with Barhoma Law, P.C. by calling our firm at 213-800-7664.

Celebrities have a lot of sway. They are frequently on television, and many of them have hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of followers on social media. In Kim Kardashian’s case, more than 67 million followers. Over the years, Kardashian has used her platform to advocate for criminal justice reform generally, as well as speaking out about specific injustices she sees in the system.

kim-kardashian-trump-300x200Kardashian’s most recent efforts relate to the scheduled execution of Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old man who the government plans to execute on December 10, 2020. Bernard was arrested and charged with murder in what the prosecution described as a gang-related killing. Evidently, back in 1999, when Bernard was just 18 years old, he and several of his associates approached a vehicle with a couple inside. One of Bernard’s associates shot at the couple inside the car, and then Bernard lit the car on fire. One of the victims died of a gunshot wound and the other of smoke inhalation. Bernard was convicted in a Texas court and sentenced to die. He exhausted his appeals and post-conviction remedies, and is scheduled to be executed this month. According to Bernard, he lit the car on fire when his co-defendant held a gun to his head. As such, it was questionable to what extent he was involved.

Upon hearing about the case, Kardashian reached out to her millions of Twitter followers, asking them to sign a petition urging President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison. Kardashian explained in a November 29th tweet, “while Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now.” She went on to explain that the crime was horrible, but that Bernard’s trial attorney failed to present important mitigating information that may have impacted the jury’s decision to render a death sentence. For example, the jury never heard that Bernard grew up in an abusive home, that his father left him to fend for himself on the streets, and that he was remorseful for his role in the killings. Kardashian also pointed out that the jury did not hear evidence regarding how Bernard’s brain was still developing when he participated in the crime.

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could have broad implications for juveniles who are serving life sentences for a California murder conviction.

The case, Jones. v. Mississippi, involves a defendant who stabbed his grandfather to death when he was just 15 years old. After the jury found the defendant guilty, the judge sentenced him to what was then a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The defendant’s convictions were affirmed on appeal. However, in a petition for post-conviction relief, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted the defendant’s request for a resentencing, solely to determine if he should ever be eligible for parole.

After the court granted the defendant’s resentencing request, but before the sentencing hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court released a monumental opinion regarding JLWOP cases (juvenile life without the possibility of parole). The case was Miller v. Alabama, in which the court held that a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

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