Reforming California’s Criminal Justice System

In the Capitol, we are pushing forward a strong progressive agenda to expand immigration protections, fight climate change, fund affordable housing and transportation infrastructure, protect the rights of women and the LGBT community, and so much more. The Legislature and Governor have rightly received praise for these moves.

One area where we’ve made significant progress, without nearly as much attention, is our aggressive work to reform California’s criminal justice system. Simply put, California went way overboard in criminal penalties, resulting in mass incarceration that harms communities, drains public resources (to the point where our prison system received more funding that our public higher education system), and makes our prison system our primary mental healthcare system. It’s not sustainable, and we need to reform the system to reduce prison populations, to move away from draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, and to focus on rehabilitation, mental health and addiction services, and addressing the root causes of crime.

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Senator Wiener speaks to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco

In 2017 we passed some landmark criminal justice reforms in the Legislature, and I was proud to be part of these efforts. For example, under the leadership of my colleagues Senators Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara of Los Angeles, the Legislature pass laws eliminating a large number of drug sentencing enhancements (the “RISE Act,” SB 180) and ending the barbaric system of life without parole for juveniles (SB 394). I proudly supported these important reforms.

Also last year, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, two criminal justice reform bills I authored: SB 239 and SB 384. SB 239 modernizes our HIV criminalization laws, which have historically been used to target low-income women and people of color, including immigrants, and hinder public health efforts to get people tested and connected to treatment. I was honored to partner with Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D, San Diego) to pass this important measure. We aren’t going to end new HIV infections by treating people living with HIV as felons, which is why SB 239 is so vital. SB 384 enacted long-overdue reforms to California’s sex offender registry, which was so draconian and overbroad that 1 in 400 Californians is on it, including people with low-level offenses from decades ago. By tiering the registry — and providing a path off for people who pose zero risk to the community — the registry will be a much more effective tool for law enforcement and will make our community safer. That’s why law enforcement supported the bill.

This year, we are continuing this important reform work. The Legislature is advancing two important bills to reform use of lethal force and police transparency. Too many people, particularly young black men, are being shot by law enforcement officers in our state. While I’m incredibly supportive of those who serve as police officers and put their own safety on the line every day, I believe we can make smart reforms to reduce the number of shootings and to ensure transparency. I’m proud to have voted for and support three bills that do just that — SB 1421 by Senator Nancy Skinner to increase transparency of serious use-of-force complaints against officers that have been sustained after an investigation; AB 931 by Assemblymember Shirley Weber to modernize our police use-of-lethal-force standards; and AB 3131 by Assemblymember Todd Gloria to limit the ability of law enforcement to military-grade weapons. Each of these bills will make our communities safer for everyone and help to build more trust between police officers and the communities they serve.

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Senator Wiener and Assemlymember Todd Gloria Honored by Lambda Legal for their work to decriminalize HIV/AIDS in California

But police shootings aren’t the only area we can make significant change. In California, witness misidentification is the leading cause of convictions in cases where people are later exonerated by DNA evidence. Wrongful convictions are disastrous because not only do they ruin the lives of innocent people, but the actual perpetrators of crimes remain free in our communities. While a few counties in our state have set good standards for protecting against misidentifications, most do not, which leads to innocent people ending up in jail.

This year I’m authoring SB 923, to reduce wrongful convictions by strengthening eyewitness ID standards. SB 923 requires all law enforcement agencies to follow a set of evidence-based procedures so that we can remove bias from witness identification proceedings. SB 923 will both make our communities safer and help keep innocent people out of jail.

I’m also authoring a bill, SB 990, to protect transgender incarcerated individuals, who are frequently abused and treated horribly due to being housed not pursuant to their gender identity. Transgender women, in particular, are frequently housed as men and, as a result, victimized by other prisoners. “For their own protection,” they’re then placed in isolation and lose access to critical services. SB 990 ensures that these individuals receive full access to services and sets standards for prison officials to treat them respectfully.

There is so much more we can do, but I’m proud of the work the Legislature is doing to make our criminal justice system more just, equitable, and effective for everyone.

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