LWVC Secures an Exceptional Victory with Passage of the California Racial Justice Act
In a tumultuous ending to the 2020 state legislative session, AB 2542 (Kalra-D), the California Racial Justice Act, made it over the finish line—one of the few bills that did in a session full of police reform bills expected to pass in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The bill was co-sponsored by LWVC.
The California Supreme Court has recognized that no provision of California law clearly states that racial discrimination is prohibited in seeking a sentence or conviction and that its hands are tied until the Legislature can act. Californians must rely on the state or federal constitutional provisions to challenge discrimination in the criminal justice system. These broad constitutional provisions have proven insufficient to address persistent racial discrimination in the criminal justice system because the courts have held that they require proof of purposeful discrimination. As a result, under current law, courts effectively sanction racial discrimination.
California convictions and sentences are routinely upheld despite:
- Blatantly racist statements by attorneys, judges, jurors, and expert witnesses;
- The exclusion of all or nearly all Black and Latinx people from a jury; and
- Stark statistical evidence showing systemic bias in charging and sentencing.
The California Racial Justice Act
AB 2542, the California Racial Justice Act, would prohibit the state from seeking or upholding a conviction or sentence that is discriminatory based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D–San Jose), along with Senators Holly Mitchell (D–Los Angeles) and Steve Bradford (D–Gardena), modeled this bill after the California Civil Rights Act in order to address the harm that discrimination causes to individuals, families, and communities.
The LWV of California (LWVC) is a co-sponsor of AB 2542, along with the American Friends Service Committee, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and NextGen.
If signed by the Governor, the California Racial Justice Act would prohibit racial discrimination in convictions and sentences and create a process to challenge racial discrimination at trial or following conviction. The bill identifies five kinds of discrimination that can be challenged:
- Intentional discrimination aimed at the defendant by an attorney, judge, law enforcement officer, expert witness, or juror in the case.
- Racially coded language used in court—for example, language that compares the defendant to an animal.
- Racial discrimination in jury selection, such as removing all or nearly all Black or Latinx people from the jury.
- Racial disparities in charging—more severe charging of a member of a race, ethnicity, or nationality.
Our League, along with the LWVLA and the Mount Baldy League, has members in Appropriations Committee Chairman Anthony Portantino’s district. We were called on by LWVC in the crucial last week to help get the bill, which had passed the Assembly, safely out of the Senate Appropriations Committee (where many bills go to die) and onto the Senate floor for a vote.
While a request to meet with Senator Portantino initially went unanswered, an email blast to members of the Leagues involved, urging their calls, emails, and tweets to the Senator as to the import of the bill, secured a meeting with members of League districts in nineteen cities of Portantino’s district.
LWV-PA President Martha Zavala, Advocacy Chair Anita Mackey, and members of the Policing Practices Subcommittee Veronica Jones, Debra Francis, and Kris Ockershauser represented our League. We had a cordial meeting with Senator Portantino. The following week, the Appropriations Committee met, and AB 2542 made it out of committee. Another call went out to League members to contact the senator for his support on the Senate floor. Our next step will be to urge the Governor to sign the bill.
The takeaway from this experience of a very uphill drive to release the bill from the Appropriations Committee is that broad, united messaging to the chair of the critical Appropriations Committee worked. Strategic messaging from LWVC, combined with joint League calls to members to contact Senator Portantino in support of the bill and an informed and persuasive meeting of League members, paid off bigtime. Congratulations and many thanks to all who helped secure this exceptional win!
—Kris Ockershauser, Co-chair, Policing Practices Subcommittee