California Reduces Prison Time for Some Inmates Convicted of Murder

October 4, 2018 Updated: October 4, 2018

People in California who committed a felony that resulted in an accidental victim’s death may no longer be charged with murder under a new law. Some people who have already been convicted might also have their prison time reduced.

Senate Bill 1437 “narrows the definition of felony murder” to allow certain inmates to avoid punishment that may not be proportionate to the crime they commit, said the bill’s author Sen. Nancy Skinner in a statement. Gov. Brown signed the bill on Sep. 30.

Based on former California law, if an individual committed certain felonies such as burglary and robbery that led to a death, even if the death was not intended, the person could be held liable for first-degree or second-degree murder with a punishment of 15 years in prison up to possibly the death penalty.

Sen. Skinner argued that under the felony murder rule, even if someone involved in committing a felony was unaware that a killing would or did take place, the person “could still have faced a first-degree murder charge and received a sentence that was equally as severe as the one handed down to the person who actually committed murder.”

A 2018 survey by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Restore Justice quoted by Sen. Skinner found that 72% of female inmates in California with a life sentence did not commit the actual homicide.

With the passage of SB 1437, a person can only be convicted under the felony murder rule if he or she directly kills someone, aids and abets the killing, is a major participant in the killing, or when the victim is an on-duty law enforcement officer.

The bill will prohibit prosecutors from replacing “the intent to commit a felony for the intent to commit murder,” according to the bill. The new law also allows inmates who were affected by the felony murder rule to ask for a re-sentencing.

Opponents included the California District Attorneys Association, which argued that the bill could eliminate “murder liability for those who participate in felonies that are inherently dangerous to human life,” according to a letter.