California panel urges changes to reduce criminal sentences

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FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014, file photo, inmates wait to enter their assigned cell block after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. An advisory committee to Gov. Gavin Newsom says California should allow all but death row inmates and those serving life-without-parole to request lighter sentences after serving at least 15 years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California should allow all but death row inmates and those spending life behind bars without the chance of parole to request lighter sentences after they serve at least 15 years, one piece of a dramatic overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws that an advisory committee to Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended Tuesday.

The nation's most populated state also should limit sentencing enhancements that can add years to prison terms and are imposed with “extreme racial disparities," the committee said. For example, it said 99% of those given a gang enhancement in Los Angeles County are people of color.

California led the nation in tough-on-crime policies 30 years ago, but in recent years has been among the states at the forefront of easing criminal penalties. Two lawmakers on the committee announced they had put some of the recommendations into legislation that would have to pass the Democratic-led Legislature and be signed into law by Newsom.

“If all 10 recommendations were adopted, they would impact almost every area of California’s criminal legal system, from driving infractions to life in prison, and probably everybody behind bars would be affected in some way,” committee chairman Michael Romano told The Associated Press.

"We can improve public safety and reduce incarceration at the same time,” said Romano, who directs Stanford Law School's Three Strikes Project, which helped persuade California voters to ease a three-strikes law that was considered the nation’s toughest law targeting repeat offenders.

The committee, made up of current and former lawmakers, judges and academics, aimed for broad impact with its unanimous proposals, including addressing racial and economic disparities in traffic tickets, where unpaid fines can turn into a mountain of debt and eventually a jail sentence.

Members recommended that driving without a license and driving with a suspended license based on unpaid fines be reduced from misdemeanors to infractions, with lower fees.

Some of California's largest counties already have moved in that direction, and former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 ended the suspension of licenses for people who didn't pay court fees.