California was one of the leading states for tough-on-crime policies 30 years ago and now leads again with the easing of criminal penalties. Numerous new laws and policies are being brought in, covering such a wide range of issues that nearly everyone in America’s most populous state will likely be affected in some way.
The reforms have raised awareness of criminal law in California and sparked considerable debate among attorneys and the general public.
Those caught driving without a license or driving with a suspended license based on unpaid fines will have their charges reduced from misdemeanors to infractions. There will also be lower fees involved. Some of California’s larger counties have already been doing this, and in 2017 the previous Governor, Jerry Brown, ended license suspension for people who didn’t pay their court fees.
Each year, around 14,000 people serve less than a year in prison, which is a considerable burden. Consequently, those serving less than a year will do so in county jails instead of state prisons. This ties in with recent research that showed offenders tended to do better if incarcerated near home and benefitted more from rehabilitation programs.
New bills have been introduced aimed at limiting sentence enhancements. It was argued that gang-related enhancements often increase what would be misdemeanor charges when dealing with people of color. Another suggestion is that judges should consider dismissing cases if the offenders aren’t violent, or if cases are related to mental health issues, or if triggered by old convictions, especially those committed when juvenile.
Judges are now authorized to offer misdemeanor diversion to most offenders, and if terms are followed, criminal actions will be dismissed, and records erased. Those not eligible include domestic violence cases, stalkers and registrable sex offenders. However, new legislation might reduce sex offender registrations by up to 90% resulting from a new three-tier system. Additionally, there will be a maximum of one year of probation for misdemeanor offenses.
The punishment of disorderly or insubordinate students will change from probation programs to community-based programs. In a separate bill, juvenile prisons will be replaced with the Office of Youth and Community Restoration. Another reform protects juvenile offender records from public inspection.
The new law allows inmates who are trained first responders or were part of prison firefighting crews to petition the court upon release to have their record cleared. Inmates were previously barred from becoming firefighters due to their criminal records. In a separate law, parolees now have their right to vote restored on completion of their sentence.