This fall, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed and vetoed hundreds of bills. As the new year draws closer, we move to the next part in our series sharing the fates of noteworthy justice-related bills that made it to the governor’s desk in 2023.
Earlier stories in this series looked at bills addressing conditions of incarceration in California, policing issues, youth justice, and assistance for crime survivors. In this latest story, we’ll look at bills related to crime and the court system.
Some of the bills Gov. Newsom signed impose steeper criminal penalties.
One bill seeks to combat the fentanyl crisis with more incarceration. Existing law allows for tiered sentence enhancements for selling heroin and cocaine, through which heavier drug weights add more years in lockup. AB 701, a bill introduced by Carlos Villapudua (D–Stockton), makes people who sell fentanyl subject to such sentence enhancements. A related bill, AB 890, requires people convicted of fentanyl related crimes who are granted probation to complete a free fentanyl and synthetic opiate education program, if such a program is available.
Another Newsom-approved bill, SB 14, puts sex trafficking of minors in the California penal code’s list of “serious felony offenses.” This means that people accused of the crime will be eligible for harsher penalties, including sentence enhancements, and the state’s “Three Strikes” law. The bill by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) passed the Senate and Assembly unanimously before landing on Newsom’s desk.
During bill-signing season, Newsom also declined to decriminalize possession of mushrooms and public transit fare evasion.
Had the governor not vetoed the bill, SB 58 by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would have decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of certain psychedelics, including psilocybin (mushrooms), Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and mescaline (except for peyote). California would have followed Colorado and Oregon, where use of these hallucinogenic substances has already been legalized.
“Veterans and anyone suffering from PTSD and depression should not face criminal penalties for seeking relief,” said Sen. Wiener. “Plant-based psychedelics are non-addictive and show tremendous promise at treating some of the most intractable drivers of our nation’s mental health crisis. After three years of consultation with law enforcement groups and medical experts, SB 58 takes a moderate approach to allowing suffering people to access plant medicine with appropriate safeguards in place.”
In his veto message, Newsom agreed with Sen. Wiener regarding the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, but indicated the bill was undercooked.
The governor wrote that he was “committed to working with the legislature and sponsors of this bill to craft legislation that would authorize permissible uses and consider a framework for potential broader decriminalization in the future, once the impacts, dosing, best practice, and safety guardrails are thoroughly contemplated and put in place.”
Newsom also vetoed a bill that would have reduced criminal penalties for evading fares on public transportation. State law says that the first and second time a person fails to pay a fare, the individual is subject to infraction fines of up to $250 and 48 hours of community service. Subsequent fare evasions are classified as misdemeanors and each carry a fine up to $450 and/or up to 90 days in jail.
The bill, AB 819, would have eliminated the misdemeanor charge, and set the fine for a third (or subsequent) evasion at no more than $400.
Newsom argued that fare evasion costs public transit operators tens of millions of dollars per year. “According to one operator, the bulk of the crimes committed in their system are committed by people who have not paid a fare,” the governor added. “I cannot take an action to reduce penalties on fare evasion that could, in turn, contribute to an increase in crime on transit.”
In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, effectively reducing six low-level drug and property felonies to misdemeanors. People convicted of those crimes had until November 4, 2022, to apply for criminal record relief. After that date, they were required to show “good cause” for their request. The rules were vague and open to interpretation by individual courts.
“SB 749 allows counties to use Proposition 47’s original more streamlined process for qualified individuals to file petitions to seek records reclassification or resentencing that lapsed this past year,” wrote Bill-author Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles). “A felony conviction can follow an individual and hinder their ability to find gainful employment and stable housing for the rest of their life.”
Defining the purpose of sentencing and incarceration
Previously, California’s penal code said that the purpose of criminal sentencing is “public safety achieved through punishment, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.”
Under AB 1104, by Asm. Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), the penal code language shall also state that “the deprivation of liberty [incarceration] satisfies the purpose of sentencing.”
The new law requires state prison officials to “facilitate access for community-based programs in order to meaningfully effectuate” that principle.
“My bill calls for incarcerated individuals being afforded enhanced opportunities for restorative justice, trauma healing, education, and participation in community-based programming designed to assist in successful reintegration after release,” said Asm. Bonta. “The purpose of this legislation is to speed the process away from the failed policies of the past, and toward a healing and restorative future inside of California’s prisons.”