New California Law Could Retroactively Remedy Racist Sentences
Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

New California Law Could Retroactively Remedy Racist Sentences

But we’re not holding our breath

In 2020, the California Legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, a reform meant to curb institutional bias against people of color in the criminal justice system. According to the Sacramento Bee, the measure aims to prohibit the state from “seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction or imposing a sentence based upon race, ethnicity or national origin.” If racial bias is detected from jurors, judges, law enforcement, lawyers, and witnesses, and if the court senses any biases, the affected parties are entitled to a remedy, which can include “dismissing or reducing charges or sentences or granting a new trial.”

This is a great law and a march towards justice. There’s one problem, though: As it stands, this legislation cannot be applied retroactively, only to cases tried after Jan. 1, 2021. A bill that just passed the Senate floor looks to rectify this dilemma and phase in retroactive applications of the law. The bar will likely be high, and it’ll be interesting to see what, as the bill’s text says, the state “must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the violation did not contribute to the judgment.”

Not for nothing, harsher sentences for Black people have been doled out ever since Europeans stepped foot on this land they stupidly thought was India. And yes, basically from the very beginning. Do you know who John Punch was? No? Well, have a seat for story time.

Punch, a man of African descent, was a servant to a wealthy Virginian named Hugh Gwyn. He and Gwyn’s two other servants, men of European descent, decided they had enough of the servant life and escaped to Maryland. They were quickly apprehended and whipped as a form of punishment. The two White men were sentenced to four more years of indentured servitude by Virginia's highest court. Punch, on the other hand, was made a slave for the rest of his natural life. From 1619 to Punch’s sentence in 1640, the status of Black people in the colonies was a bit of a purgatory—obfuscated and unclear—and this ruling was basically the origin of the legal basis of African chattel slavery in the Americas.

To put it plainly, America has a problem.