Two California bills would reform improved sentencing and more clearly define petty theft

A California senator on Tuesday announced two criminal justice reform bills as part of a recommendation by a state panel to reform aspects of the criminal justice system.

The state panel, made up of current and former lawmakers, judges, and academics and chaired by Michael Romano, who heads the Stanford Three Strikes Project, made eight other recommendations, including considerations on death row and the fight against racial and economic disparities in traffic tickets. .

As a result of these recommendations, Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) presented SB 81, which would create a set of guidelines for the courts so that sentence increases are no longer applied to non-violent offenses, unless a judge determines they are necessary to protect public safety.

According to the data, about 80% of incarcerated people serve a sentence that includes an additional period added by an improvement of the sentence. In some cases, the length of the prison sentence added due to the improved sentences is five to 10 years or more – longer than the length of the underlying sentence, according to Skinner’s office. The committee’s report also noted that “the improvements are being applied disproportionately against people of color and those with mental illness.”

Additionally, research reviewed by the Criminal Code Review Committee found no evidence that the proliferation of sentence improvements in California has made the state safer.

Judges currently have the power to reject most sentencing enhancements, but rarely exercise that discretion, in part because California law does not provide clear guidelines on what judges should do.

Skinner also introduced SB 82, which would update a 150-year-old law that allowed prosecutors to raise a charge of petty theft into robbery. The bill would make a clear distinction between theft and robbery in cases where no lethal weapon was used and no one was seriously injured. New York, Oregon, Illinois and Texas are among the states that have passed reforms similar to SB 82.

“Petty theft, like shoplifting, should never be treated as robbery,” Skinner said in a statement. “California’s theft law has not been updated since 1872. It’s time for us to make sure the punishment is proportionate to the crime committed.”

Under California robbery law, a person who uses minimal “force” or is perceived to invoke “fear” during a petty theft can be charged and convicted of robbery and sentenced to a sentence. up to five years in prison. The terms “strength” and “fear” are often interpreted loosely, his office said.

For example, a person accused of making a verbal threat during shoplifting, even when no force was used and no weapon was used, may be charged with robbery. . Likewise, if the person accused of shoplifting runs into another customer or a security guard while running out of the store, causing no serious injury, the charge may be laid to theft.

Data shows robbery charges are much more likely when a shoplifter is a person of color, Skinner’s office said. People who are experiencing a mental health crisis or who have a developmental disability are also more likely to be accused of “force” or “fear”.

Among other things, SB 82 would create a new category of “first degree minor theft” for thefts under $ 950 that may involve force or fear, but do not result in serious injury or the use of a deadly weapon. This new category would be punishable by up to one year in prison and / or a fine of $ 1,000.

Bernard P. Love