Why do Democrats in blue California struggle to reform prisons, sentencing and police?

Even in deep-blue California, Democrats continue to face an uphill battle to pass legislation overhauling prisons, sentencing and policing.

This struggle was on display during the final days of this year’s legislative session, when lawmakers could not find the votes to pass a handful of significant criminal justice reform bills and resorted to pulling the measures without taking them to the Senate or Assembly floors.

This left some legislators frustrated and discouraged.

“California is not as progressive as we want the rest of the world or the rest of the country to believe,” said Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, after he tabled a bill to reduce racial profiling by prohibiting certain kinds of police stops.

“We tend to continue to lean toward law enforcement and the lock-them-up attitude than real police reform and criminal justice reform that this country and this state truly need,” he added.

But advocates aren’t condemning lawmakers for failing to act. Instead, they’re taking stock of their successes and preparing to double down next session.

That’s because passing criminal justice reform in the Golden State has never been an easy feat.

Newly-elected legislators are often not well-versed in the state’s complex criminal justice system. Democrats representing so-called purple districts are cautious about sparking soft-on-crime outrage that could hinder re-election campaigns. And advocates pushing for change are up against powerful groups representing district attorneys, sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement organizations.

It has taken multiple years of advocacy — and, at times, decades of attempts — to get some of the most progressive prison and law enforcement reform ideas on the books.

“The other side can tell a story that people are very comfortable with — a story that says, identify those ‘others’, categorize them as criminals and treat them as sub-human,” said Carmen-Nicole Cox of ACLU California Action. “It’s so much easier to maintain the status quo. It takes so much time to get people to reason past the indoctrination.”

State Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, works in the Senate chamber at the state Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, the final day of the legislative session.
State Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, works in the Senate chamber at the state Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, the final day of the legislative session.

Controversial reform bills delayed

During the last hours of legislative business on Sept. 14, Bradford shelved his measure, Senate Bill 50.

Almost simultaneously, Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, pulled Senate Bill 94, which would have allowed some inmates serving life without parole to petition courts for reduced sentences.

A day prior, Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, paused his second attempt to restrict the use of solitary confinement in prisons. Lawmakers also held two constitutional amendments to allow inmates to vote in elections and to prohibit slavery in any form.

Meanwhile, a bill to expand California’s “three strikes” law to cover child sex trafficking passed both houses unanimously and is expected to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Greg Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, said he believes this session showed California at an “inflection point” where some legislators are “starting to take note of the crime problem across the state.”

“I think the smash-and-grab theft and the increased violence we’re seeing across the state is starting to have some effect on their policymaking,” he said. “I’m hopeful that, going forward, this phase of reckless criminal justice reform, which has undermined safety in many regards, will slow down.”

California’s rate of gun violence is lower than the national average and most red states. But violent crime in California has been ticking upward in recent years. Violent crime — of which 59% involve firearms — rose more than 26% from 2014 to 2022 across California, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Cox and other advocates are determined to continue pressing forward.

“There are folks that would love to take us back in time but the community will not have it,” she said. “These are the kinds of policies (lawmakers) say they would support, so we’re just going to hold them to that.”

Inmates exercise outside in the yard at San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael on July 26, 2023. California lawmakers delayed votes on several monumental criminal justice reform bills this year. Advocates say it’ll take years to make them law.
Inmates exercise outside in the yard at San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael on July 26, 2023. California lawmakers delayed votes on several monumental criminal justice reform bills this year. Advocates say it’ll take years to make them law.

Life without parole resentencing

SB 94, one of the most controversial criminal justice bills this session, is a case study for the challenges reformers face.

The legislation would have allowed prisoners ineligible for parole who served at least 25 years in prison and whose crimes were committed before June 5, 1990, to petition courts for re-sentencing.

Totten, whose organization was vehemently opposed to the bill, called it “utterly reckless.” He said it would harm victims and violate their trust in the criminal justice system.

Although the majority of Democrats in the Senate voted to advance the bill, support in the Assembly “wasn’t quite there yet,” according to Glenn Backes, policy consultant for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

“It wasn’t quick and easy and one shouldn’t expect it to be,” Backes said, noting that most cases the bill covers involve a murder.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Backes and other advocates, is overcoming fear-mongering tactics and misinformation shared by law enforcement to convince lawmakers to vote in opposition. There were also 31 new legislators in Sacramento this year who were still learning the ropes.

Gunner Johnson, 49, left, and Christian Branscombe, 48, formerly sentenced to life-without-parole, talk about their support for Senate Bill 94 on Aug. 23. Johnson was shot by Branscombe decades ago and the two reunited through a restorative justice process. Senate Bill 94 would allow some inmates convicted of crimes that took place before mid-1990 to petition a judge to have their sentences changed and seek parole.

The bill includes several stop-gaps, such as requiring approval by the parole board and governor before a life-without-parole inmate could be released. It also exempts those convicted of killing law enforcement officers, those who committed certain sexual crimes together with murder and those who killed three or more people.

“There’s a number of levels of safety and review that are built into the bill,” Backes said. “But if all (lawmakers) knew was that it was old cases involving murder and that the district attorney didn’t want to have to review these cases, that was enough to give them pause. So, we need more time to go over the issue in detail with them.”

Totten said members of his organization were not looking to generate fear but to be “realists.”

“We’re being truth-sayers about what these crimes are, the impacts they’ve had on victims and the people who have forfeited their right to live freely,” he said.

Criminal justice reform wins

Although several high-profile criminal justice bills did not make it through the Capitol this year, lawmakers and advocates still celebrated a handful of wins.

Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, D-Los Angeles, managed to get two-thirds of lawmakers in both houses to vote for Senate Bill 749, which would eliminate the deadline to apply for reducing old low-level, non-violent crime felony convictions to misdemeanors under Proposition 47.

Prop 47, which voters approved in 2014, reclassified some nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors, which critics say has led to an uptick in property and other crimes.

Bradford attempted a bill similar to SB 749 last year, but it failed after the Assembly did not adopt its urgency clause.

“I think it’s the first year of a two-year cycle,” Assembly Majority Leader Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, said of such overhaul bills this year. “So everything is going through the process. Sometimes that process is one year, sometimes that process is gut-and-amend, sometimes that process is two years of work. And this is just a reminder that we don’t stop working.”

Assembly member Isaac Bryan, D-Jefferson Park gives his opinion on a bill during session on Thursday, June 1, 2023.
Assembly member Isaac Bryan, D-Jefferson Park gives his opinion on a bill during session on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Although SB 749 made it through the Legislature, Assembly floor discussion on the last night of session showed some moderate Democrats have to hedge their votes on reform bills to maintain their tough-on-crime credentials.

Assemblywoman Stephanie Nguyen, D-Elk Grove, laid out problems she sees with Proposition 47 before endorsing SB 749, saying she does not believe those convicted of writing fraudulent checks or possessing small amounts of drugs should remain incarcerated when they would receive lighter sentences today.

“By supporting this measure today, I am in no way endorsing the major flaws of Prop. 47,” Nguyen said. “Prop. 47 needs to be fixed, and our Assembly Public Safety Committee needs to address these flaws. I am simply stating that persons who have committed low-level offenses ... should have the opportunity to petition the court for a reduced sentence, and the court should make that determination.”

Some Democrats in purple districts declined to vote on the bill, including Fresno Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria, San Fernando Valley Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo and San Diego Assemblyman Brian Maienschein.

Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains — who represents Bakersfield, a very tricky area for Democrats — even joined Republicans in voting against the measure.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, noted nearly 80% of bills that come through his committee advance through. He said some bills that do not make it through the legislative process during a two-year cycle simply need more work before authors try again.

“I think just about every bill that comes through public safety is challenging,” Jones-Sawyer said. “It’s challenging from the fact that they’re very emotional. They tug at the heartstrings of individuals and people.”