Monday, March 26, 2007
Assembly Approves Changes to California Sentencing Law
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The state Assembly yesterday approved a bill revising the state’s determinate sentencing system, a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year that ruled California’s current procedure unconstitutional.
The Legislature is seeking to comply with the high court’s decision that a defendant’s sentence must be based on facts presented to the jury. Under current guidelines, many sentencing factors considered by judges are never presented to jurors.
“Let’s vote to make our sentencing law again constitutional,” said Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, who carried the bill in the Assembly.
The bill returns to the Senate, which is expected to pass it and send it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lawmakers were forced to make changes after the high court in January struck down a key feature of California’s Determinate Sentencing Law. In the 6-3 decision in Cunningham v. California, the justices found that it improperly requires judges to choose the middle of three sentencing options unless the facts of a particular case justify a shorter or longer prison sentence.
The justices said it is unconstitutional to increase a sentence based on facts that were not found true by a jury.
The bill, by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, would allow judges to choose any sentence among the three alternatives set by law for a particular crime. It passed on a 63-4 vote.
“If left unaddressed by the Legislature, we could have different responses by courts in every jurisdiction in the state,” said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from La Canada-Flintridge.
He said the legislation would streamline sentencing and avoid costly appeals for the next two years. Law enforcement officials estimate the Supreme Court’s ruling could allow 10,000 California convicts to seek new sentences.
Critics of the Romero bill say that what it omits leaves the legislation open to a legal challenge.
While the bill allows judges more latitude in imposing sentences, it does not contain a provision requiring judges to base their decision on facts presented to a jury — a key part of the Supreme Court ruling.
Some legal experts and state lawmakers, including Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, say the only way for California to meet the Supreme Court’s standard is to require separate trial phases for juries to determine sentences, much as they do now in potential death penalty cases.
Romero responds that giving judges broad sentencing discretion removes the Supreme Court’s objection to California’s sentencing law.
Democrats have promoted the bill as a stopgap measure while they consider creating a commission to review California’s sentencing and parole laws.
Schwarzenegger also wants a wider review of the state’s sentencing laws as part of an overall prison-reform effort, which includes seeking ways to relieve severe prison overcrowding.
Assembly Republicans supported the bill but said they do not want it linked to other sentencing changes or review. They are concerned that a sentencing commission could lead to shorter prison terms.
“The U.S. Supreme Court basically laid down the law to us,” said Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton, in supporting the measure.
But he added, “The bill does not propose a sentencing commission that would put our families and our neighbors’ families in jeopardy.”
A separate Romero bill would create a California Sentencing Commission comprised of 20 members. The chief justice would be the chair, and the commission would include other judges as well as representatives of various interest groups, including prosecutors, defense lawyers, academics, law enforcement, and victims’ rights advocates.
The commission would specify sentences, except that its decisions could be overturned by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature.
Republicans also used yesterday’s debate to criticize the Legislature for failing to enact comprehensive prison reform, noting that the state must present its solutions for inmate overcrowding to a federal judge in two months.
“It is important to think about this without also seeing the glaring ineptitude of this body to do anything on substantive prison reform,” said Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia.
Democrats said prison reform should be addressed separately from the sentencing changes required by the Cunningham decision.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company