A California state assembly committee gave its stamp of approval on April 27 to legislation that would significantly soften sentences for people convicted of some firearm offenses, with proponents saying laws against using guns in the commission of crimes disproportionately affect people of color.
The Assembly Public Safety Committee voted 6-2 to approve the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act, though the proposal still has several hurdles to clear before becoming law.
Assemblyman Alex Lee’s office said he agreed to co-sponsor the bill “to correct decades of harm done to communities of color.” Staffers recently created a “fact sheet” that argues imposing stiffer sentencing laws added on to the charge of an underlying offense drives up incarceration rates, crowds prisons, and serves as “a legal monument to racism.”
“If a gun is used during a violent felony offense – such as a robbery – California’s ‘10-20-Life’ gun enhancement applies,” it said. “A 10-year enhancement is available for any use of a gun, which is increased to 20 years if the gun is discharged, and to 25-to-life if great bodily injury or death occurs.”
AB 1509, as the bill is known, would eliminate the use of most gun enhancements and significantly reduce the others, modifying them from 10-20-life to 1-2-3 years.
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County (ADDA), said the proposal “is devoid of reality,” saying such a reduction would equate to “an inconsequential sentence.”
“In essence, the bill decriminalizes the use of a firearm in California for the most severe, most violent felonies,” Siddall told The Daily Wire. “What this bill would do is encourage violent criminals to use guns during their crime because the penalty is so insignificant.”
Its passage would be retroactive, meaning some prisoners currently incarcerated on firearm enhancement charges could be released. However, Lee’s office said the bill limits retroactivity based on the crime, and not everyone would be eligible for resentencing.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, approximately 40,000 inmates in custody, or about 40% of the prison population, have a firearm enhancement attached to their sentences.
Lee, a 25-year-old progressive Democrat from San Jose, describes himself as “the first Gen Z, youngest Asian American, and first bisexual state legislator in California history.” He was living with his mother last November when he beat his Republican opponent in a landslide. Lee was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and worked part-time for an app-based delivery service to generate income during the campaign. His priorities emphasized “fighting for the marginalized” but did not mention criminal justice reform.
Pokemon Go to the Polls pic.twitter.com/nF4PwkcapB
— Alex Lee 李天明 (@alex_lee) November 2, 2020
Lee introduced AB 1509 in February. Four fellow Democrats signed on as co-authors, including Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo (Los Angeles), Ash Kalra (San Jose), Mark Stone (Monterey Bay), and Sen. Scott Weiner (San Francisco).
During the committee meeting last week, Lee thanked “the over 370 incarcerated individuals who have written in support.”
Here is a look at four advocacy groups and co-sponsors that, according to Lee’s office, played an extensive role in drafting AB 1509 and remain partners in considering any amendments.
According to its co-founders, Initiate Justice was established “to activate the political power of people in prison, formerly incarcerated people, and their loved ones.” The organization claims more than 19,000 members inside California state prisons, including more than 150 organizers mobilizing inmates to change laws. Initiate Justice also trains organizers on the outside to “build our collective power and make our presence felt with legislators” through its Institute of Impacted Leaders initiative.
(1/4) This week we officially launched our 2021 Institute of Impacted Leaders Spring cohorts! Our Spring cohorts are taking place virtually and consist of people from the San Fernando Valley, Fresno, Orange County, and South Bay/Long Beach! pic.twitter.com/pvxqk9Y94t
— Initiate Justice (@InitiateJustice) March 19, 2021
The group’s website highlights “prison abolition” as a featured project and has received at least $750,000 from two San Francisco-based grantmakers: the Libra Foundation and Rosenberg Foundation.
Taina Vargas-Edmond, Initiate Justice’s co-founder and executive director, was the executive chair of a committee that pushed a successful statewide ballot measure last year that restored voting rights to felons who have completed their prison terms. Initiate Justice was the lead organization on the Yes on 17 campaign and mobilized outside organizers on parole to direct communication efforts. The drive was also supported by the other activist groups working with Lee to reduce gun crimes punishment.
“The current approach of piling enhancements on top of convictions is an antiquated practice that needs to be rooted out from the core of California’s criminal legal system,” said Vargas-Edmond, who describes herself as an abolitionist and intersectional feminist.
Established inside San Quentin State Prison, Re:Store Justice was created “to re-imagine our justice system.” It works “to end life and extreme sentences by changing the way society and the carceral system responds to violence and harm.” The group promotes restorative justice education sessions within prisons, bringing together homicide victims’ families with people incarcerated for murder.
Executive Director Adnan Khan co-founded the organization while incarcerated at San Quentin. He describes sentencing enhancements as “racist” and “abusive.”
“Sentencing Black, Brown and people of color to 10 additional years, or 20 additional years, or life in prison in addition to the sentence is excessive and unreasonable. We have to undo mass incarceration and the abuse we’ve normalized,” said Khan. “We are grateful for Assemblymember Lee leading transformative change.”
The organization has publicized progressive organizing actions that seek to decarcerate and close California prisons.
📣 CALL TO ACTION *TODAY* MONDAY MAY 3RD @ 2:30PM
— Re:Store Justice (@restore_CAL) May 3, 2021
LaNeisha Edwards, program director at Re:Store Justice, served as a member of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón’s transition team and is part of his office’s Crime Victims Advisory Board.
Patty Quillin, the wife of Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, sits on the board of directors. She was also a major donor to the Yes on 17 campaign and funded drives supporting Gascón’s candidacy during that same election cycle.
Essie Justice Group
Made up of women with incarcerated loved ones, the Essie Justice Group boasts about “advancing demands that would bring about a reality where prisons are abolished and systems of healing, accountability, and wellness are the norm.” The organization also pushes for the dismantling of policing.
“We are building a membership of fierce advocates for race and gender justice – including Black and Latinx women, formerly and currently incarcerated women, transgender women, and gender non-conforming people,” Essie’s website says.
89% of people in CA prisons with gun enhancements are people of color – meaning 9 out 10 people who have extra time added to their sentence because of a gun are people of color. That is what systemic racism looks like. #EndEnhancements #SupportAB1509 https://t.co/NmOvKq246J
— Essie Justice Group (@essie4justice) April 26, 2021
The group has received more than $4 million in grants from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which, in turn, received significant funding from Quillin and Hastings.
Silicon Valley De-Bug
Silicon Valley De-Bug group runs a criminal justice community organizing program where families with loved ones facing incarceration try to impact the outcomes of their cases. They often assist public defenders and produce videos that aim to tell the court a fuller story of a defendant in the hopes of securing more lenient sentences.
Stay informed on #AB1509 by saving this link: https://t.co/kzPZKTXmlg & help raise awareness about the bill. Reach out to your Legislator, find them at https://t.co/odh6JJ0l6A and ask them to support AB 1509. We will only be successful if everyone comes together. #SupportAB1509 https://t.co/dzEqbKwr2j pic.twitter.com/9mNSL2p7DF
— SV De-Bug (@svdebug) April 26, 2021
Its Twitter account has referenced “our movement to decarcerate and abolish jails.”
The nonprofit has received financial support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
“Gun enhancements add years to loved ones’ sentences, are often used as a plea bargaining tool, and have no real correlation to public safety,” the group said in a statement. “We’ve seen dozens of families bear the burden of excessive sentences that don’t lead to real rehabilitation.”