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Life without parole? Bill that could free some aging California killers fails to advance for now

Life without parole? Bill that could free some aging California killers fails to advance for now

A bill that could have freed some of California’s aging killers serving life in prison without parole failed to advance this year, after running into opposition from victim advocates and law enforcement officials.

Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose Democrat, said he’ll reintroduce, SB 94, for consideration in next year’s session as a two-year bill after it failed to move off the Assembly floor before the end of the legislative session last Thursday.

“We need to be constantly vigilant about improving our justice system, making sure that public safety is paramount, but at the same time ensuring that we don’t infringe upon basic issues of due process and equity,” Cortese said. “I’ll continue to be very focused on this work next year and beyond.”

The bill would allow killers who have served at least 25 years of a sentence of life without parole for an offense before June 5, 1990, to petition the courts for a life sentence with parole consideration. If a judge agreed, those convicted killers still would have to convince the state’s parole board and governor to grant them freedom.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, which cosponsored the bill, called it a “modest reform” that “aims to reach a population locked into extreme sentences from decades ago that are inconsistent with our present-day sentencing practices, taking mitigating factors into account like intimate partner violence, intellectual disabilities, and childhood trauma.”

To address concerns, Cortese amended the bill so those who killed law enforcement officers, three or more victims, or who committed sex offenses even if they weren’t part of the murder conviction, wouldn’t be eligible for parole consideration under the bill. It was expected to apply to about 550 to 600 prison inmates.

“These cases represent a very narrow population that consists of the most elderly individuals behind bars,” Cortese told fellow lawmakers. “This bill simply creates a process for the judicial review of cases that have not been looked at in decades.”

But critics said it still went too far.

“Victims of the worst crimes have the right to justice,” said Assemblyman Juan Alanis, a Modesto Republican and former Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Sergeant who is vice chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee and voted against SB 94. “The families that have had a loved one murdered, or a victim of violent rape should not be traumatized again by having their murderer’s or predator’s sentence reduced after already having the closure of our justice system. While I believe in rehabilitation, some criminals are too dangerous to be released back into our communities and neighborhoods.”

Prosecutors in San Diego argued the bill would undermine Proposition 115, which voters approved in 1990 and increased penalties for murders, and that voters should decide on such changes.

Among those who protested the bill at the state Capitol in August was Vanetta Perdue, whose mother was burned to death in 1982 when her estranged father came to their Monterey area home, poured gasoline on her and set her ablaze. She said she now has to fear the man who left her to die in a burning house after killing her mother might walk out of prison.

“Life without parole is supposed to be just that, life without parole. Period,” Perdue, of North Carolina, told a crowd outside the Capitol at last month’s protest.

Alanis said SB 94 was among a half dozen public safety related bills he opposed now on hold until at least next year. Others included:

SB 50, which would prohibit a law enforcement officer from stopping or detaining the operator of a motor vehicle or bicycle for a low-level infraction such as expired registration or a broken tail light.
AB 93, which would prohibit an officer from conducting a warrantless vehicle search based solely on a person’s consent.
AB 742, which would prohibit use of police dogs for crowd control or to apprehend criminals unless they are an imminent public safety threat.
AB 1028, which would remove the requirement for health care professionals to report suspected domestic or sexual abuse to law enforcement on grounds that it may deter victims from seeking medical treatment.
AB 1310, which would let criminals convicted of using a firearm in a crime to petition for a court to dismiss the firearm enhancement, reducing their sentence.

Cortese said SB 94 will pick up next year where it left off on the Assembly floor. Another of his public safety bills, SB 553, has moved to the governor’s desk. That bill, inspired by concerns that arose in the wake of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority mass shooting in 2021, calls for employers to have workplace safety plans. Store owners had criticized a provision that would have barred employers from making workers not trained in security confront shoplifters, arguing it would invite thieves. That language has since been removed.