Will Calif. lawmakers end life sentences for its worst criminals?

The proposals could see some of California’s most violent criminals walk free.

California Democrats are looking to give a pathway to freedom for some of California’s most violent criminals who are on death row or have been sentenced to life in prison. 

If they get their way, some convicted murderers, rapists and other criminals would have the opportunity to have their sentences reduced, leading to possible releases. 


The big picture: Senate Bill 94 was authored by Senator Dave Cortese (D–Santa Clara) would affect prisoners who were convicted with one or more special circumstances for an offense that occurred before June 5, 1990. 

  • If they have served for at least 20 years, they would be provided with a public defender for representation in front of a judge, who could modify or vacate the criminal’s sentence under judicial discretion. 
  • The coauthors of SB 94 are State Senators Josh Becker (D–San Mateo) Nancy Skinner (D–Berkeley), Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) and Assemblymembers Corrie Jackson (D–Riverside) and Akilah Weber (D–San Diego). 

    The backstory: The authors of SB 94 state that their bill dates back to Proposition 115, which was passed by voters in 1990 and prohibits a judge from striking or dismissing any special circumstance that is admitted by plea or found true by a jury or court. 

    • While Proposition 115 is in effect, state law also allows judges to retain the power to dismiss special circumstances after they have been found true for offenses that occurred before June 5, 1990, when the proposition was passed. 

      Go deeper: SB 94 would direct judges to consider and afford great weight in evidence to a variety of mitigating circumstances for prisoners in their efforts to have their sentences reduced or vacated. 

      • Such circumstances that could benefit inmates include if they were a victim of sexual violence, if they experienced childhood trauma, if they are a veteran and have trauma from their military service, mental illness and their race. 
      • Judges would also be directed to use those circumstances in favor of the criminals, unless the inmate is currently an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. 

        What we’re watching: The Senate Committee on Public Safety passed SB 94 on a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, with Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R – Yucaipa) casting the lone vote in opposition. 

        • SB 94 has been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

          What they’re saying: In a written argument against the bill, the California District Attorneys Association said SB 94 would subvert the will of the people with Proposition 115 and would also impose a substantial and unwarranted burden on the judicial system. 

          • “This measure makes no distinction between those who have demonstrated some indicators of redemption or rehabilitation and those who have not,” the association wrote. “Instead, it would burden the state’s already overburdened judicial system and retraumatize the families of murder victims with resentencing hearings for individuals who have shown few or no signs of redemption, and who jurors did not believe were worthy of the opportunity for parole based on the nature of their crimes.”
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