The ‘Racial Justice Act’ in California leverages racial disparities to reduce prison sentences

A recent law in California grants criminal defendants from racial groups that have been disproportionately convicted the right to challenge their lawful convictions. State leaders aim to strike a balance between criminal justice reform and the surging rates of violent crime. The law also permits additional challenges in situations where racial bias is demonstrated within or outside the court, or if a conviction or sentencing could result in adverse immigration consequences.

Law enforcement and prosecutors argue that this act has undone convictions of violent individuals, putting public safety at risk. On the other hand, criminal justice advocates see the racial disparities in conviction and sentencing as clear signs of injustice.

The Racial Justice Act allows a criminal defendant to challenge a conviction or sentencing simply by presenting evidence of racial bias during trials. Alternatively, they can provide county-level data that shows disparities in arrests, charges, or sentences based on race or national origin.

Asian Americans have the lowest crime rates, making them a suitable comparison population for white Americans who wish to utilize the Racial Justice Act. This act allows for the presentation of data that demonstrates lower numbers of convictions and sentences among Asian Americans.

Starting in January of this year, prisoners in California have become eligible to utilize the Racial Justice Act (RJA) in order to challenge their sentences and convictions. Already, the RJA has been employed to overturn life sentences for Oakland gang members who were convicted of murder. This decision was based on an investigation that uncovered racist communications and actions within the local police department.

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“The quest for ‘equity’ in the name of justice is a deceptive tactic, aimed at liberating convicted felons solely based on their race, disregarding the undeniable truth that they were apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted based on their actions,” former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva expressed to The Center Square. “Present me with concrete evidence of differential treatment based on skin color within the application of the law, and I have yet to witness such proof.”

According to Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, black men in California are 42% more likely to be sentenced to prison compared to white men who are convicted of a felony. However, data from the Judicial Council of the California Department of Justice in that same year revealed that black men are actually 0.8 percentage points less likely to be convicted, when all other factors are held constant and their race is switched to white.

In April 2024, public defenders in San Diego effectively utilized the RJA to block a specific judge from presiding over an RJA motion in a homicide case. This decision was made based on the judge’s previous statement, where he declared, “there is absolutely no evidence that the proportion of persons in an ethnicity committing a crime must be the same as the proportion of the population.”

In order to provide clarity and training on the use of the RJA, criminal justice advocacy group Prosecutors Alliance suggests that when comparing RJA populations, it is important to consider individuals who have engaged in similar conduct, rather than just comparing the convicted individuals to the general population.

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The Prosecutors Alliance responded to the question about whether defense lawyers should use populations of criminals who commit similar crimes as comparison populations for RJA motions, stating that racial disparities within the criminal legal system hinder the achievement of genuine justice. They emphasized the importance of addressing these injustices both proactively and retroactively, with the Racial Justice Act playing a crucial role in their efforts.

According to Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance, the RJA plays a crucial role in establishing a legal system that is fair and equitable. She believes that this initiative helps to build trust within communities and promotes long-term safety.

According to crime experts, there is concern that the RJA could have a disproportionate impact on minority communities.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an expert on crime, responded to the Prosecutors Alliance, stating that they are overlooking the true cause of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. According to Mac Donald, the disparities stem from significant differences in criminal offending. For instance, in Los Angeles, African Americans are 57 times more likely than whites to be a homicide suspect. Additionally, they are 21 times more likely to commit a violent crime and 36 times more likely to commit a robbery compared to their white counterparts. Mac Donald bases these statistics on reports provided by witnesses and victims of these crimes, many of whom are also from minority communities and have reported to the Los Angeles Police Department.

According to Mac Donald, civil rights groups should prioritize addressing crime disparities, as they directly impact black communities. She highlights that black individuals in Los Angeles are 17 times more likely to be victims of homicide compared to their white counterparts, and this disparity extends statewide, where the likelihood increases to 13 times.

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