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Reform in California's Criminal Justice System

Amidst protests across the country because of police officers brutally killing African Americans at a disproportionate level, many bills attempting to address racial discrimination in the criminal system were proposed. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the California Racial Justice Act in 2020 and Racial Justice for All Act in 2021.

Law enforcement

In a 2020 report, the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board analyzed major cities in California and found African American individuals were twice more likely to be searched than white people.


The Sentencing Project demonstrated California has one of the highest sentencing disparities in the country. As a result of systemic racial disparities, Black men are eight times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. Similarly, Black women are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white women.

California Racial Justice Act

A historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp demonstrated the difficulty of addressing racial discrimination in criminal cases. The court ruled statistical evidence was not enough to prove a constitutional violation, and instead, a defendant had to show “exceptional clear proof.” Governor Newsom described the McCleskey standard as “almost impossible to meet without direct proof that racially discriminatory behavior was conscious, deliberate, and targeted.”

California’s high racial disparities needed to be addressed through legislation. Over a hundred advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners, and Initiate Justice sponsored the California Racial Justice Act.

On September 30, 2020, California Governor Newsom approved the California Racial Justice Act (AB 2542), which prohibits racial discrimination during sentencing and convictions. This Act would ultimately allow individuals to challenge discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.

Because of the passage of the California Racial Justice Act, five types of discrimination can now be addressed at the courts:

1: Intentional discrimination towards the defendant by a judge, attorney, law enforcement officer, or juror

2: Racially coded language (in the court)

3: Racial discrimination in jury selection

4: Racial disparities in charging individuals

California Racial Justice for All Act

But missing from this Racial Justice Act was the ability to challenge racial discrimination before January 1, 2021. Too many individuals have had racist judges, attorneys, and/or jurors involved in their cases, which has affected sentencing decisions. To ensure this law would be retroactive, the California Racial Justice for All Act (A.B. 256) was passed amid persistence from The Assembly Public Safety Committee. This Racial Justice for All Act received much opposition from the California District Attorney Association, as they claimed it would create a burden and backlog of cases in the courts. But its future effects would be more beneficial.

"In establishing a framework for defendants to challenge the known systemic racism and bias in our criminal courts, the Racial Justice Act was a tremendous step forward." -Ken Space, Senior Policy Advisor for NextGen
"The California Racial Justice Act created a critical and historic path forward for Black and Brown People to Pursue justice in the face of racially discriminatory treatment during the legal process." -Mica Doctoroff, Legislative Attorney at the ACLU

In the courts

In 2015 Gary Bryant Jr. was sentenced to life after fatally shooting Kenneth Cooper. Prior to his conviction, Bryant was a rapper who posted his rapping videos on YouTube. Court documents demonstrated prosecutors during trial used these rap lyrics to add gang enhancement charges by connecting Bryant to the Broad Day Gang, thus extending his sentence. In October 2021, public defender Kuluk cited the Racial Justice Act in hopes of a new trial for his client. This was the first evidentiary hearing under the Racial Justice Act, where the judge had to examine whether there was racial bias in the proceedings and if the defendant would get a new trial.

Future effects

As noted, non-white individuals are incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate. This can be a consequence of racial discrimination occurring in formal parts of the legal system. By enacting the California Racial Justice Act, individuals who were racially targeted by others in the criminal system such as judges, prosecutors, or law enforcement, or in their sentencing can request a motion to disclose evidence demonstrating a racial violation. As a result, one hopes to see a decrease in racial disparities in California's criminal justice system.














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1 Comment

Dudley Sharp
Feb 23, 2022

Wake up.

Race, ethnicity and crime statistics.

For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault. For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault. For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault. From REASSESSING TRENDS IN BLACK VIOLENT CRIME, 1980.2008: SORTING OUT THE "HISPANIC EFFECT" IN…

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