California legislators will continue to consider a bill that allows for the potential release of former death-row inmates convicted of murder, after it passed its first hurdle in the Senate Public Safety Committee April 11 on a 4–1 vote.
Authored by state Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), and co-authored by a list of Democratic senators, Senate Bill 94 aims to allow for judicial discretion of cases dating back to before June 5, 1990. The individuals in question are currently facing life without the possibility of parole.
Cortese argues that inmate populations targeted by the bill are less likely to commit another crime and should be eligible for sentencing review because they are older and have spent decades behind bars.
“The recidivism rate for this inmate population is zero. That shows us that people age out of crime, and many have done the work to rehabilitate after decades behind bars,” he said in an April 12 press release. “This inmate population deserves a path to parole.”
He additionally noted the disproportionate cost to the state because of increased healthcare expenditures for such inmates.
“SB 94 would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year by giving elder inmates the right to judicial review,” Cortese said in the statement.
But some legal experts are questioning the bill’s potential risk to public safety.
“I’m a Democrat [and] I’m 100 percent against this bill. I’m also a dad [and] a caring human being,” Jonathan Hatami, a prosecutor in Los Angeles County, wrote on Twitter April 12. “People who brutally torture [and] murder children should not be released. Period.”
Jason Anderson—the district attorney for San Bernardino County—is also adamantly opposed to the legislation.
“There are three foundations to our criminal justice system: notice, separation of powers, and finality,” he testified to the committee. “SB 94 undermines all three foundations ... it does not promulgate justice. It dispenses with justice.”
The bill is backed by a number of non-profit groups, including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
More than 700 murderers were originally sentenced to death by juries of their peers, only to have their sentences reduced to life in prison after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ended the death penalty in the state with the issuance of an executive order in 2019.
“An executive moratorium on the death penalty shall be instituted in the form of a reprieve for all people sentenced to death in California,” Newsom wrote in the order. “This moratorium does not provide for the release of any person from prison or otherwise alter any current conviction or sentence.”
While Newsom’s directive in 2019 did not release death row inmates, some of these individuals will be considered for parole if SB 94 is passed, according to legal experts.
Critics point to the case of Tiequon Cox, convicted of murdering four family members in Los Angeles after targeting the wrong house in a gang-related revenge attack in 1984.
Cox subsequently stabbed Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, another death row inmate, while serving time for the killings and was involved in an escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison in 2004.
Based on the proposed legislation, Cox would be eligible for judicial review with the possibility of receiving clearance for parole.
The bill is next scheduled to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 24.