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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.

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