Sacramento, CA – California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law on Sunday that takes away the prosecutor’s ability to charge accomplices with felony murder.
SB 1437 changed the law to say that a person can only be convicted of felony murder if they actually participated in killing someone, or if they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life,” the Sacramento Bee reported.
The new law was co-authored by State Senator Nancy Skinny (D-Berkeley) and State Senator Joel Anderson (R-Alpine).
Cases which involve the murder of a police officer will not be subject to the new rule, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The current laws in California included a “felony murder rule” which allowed someone to be held criminally liable for a murder that occurred while they were committing a felony, even if it was their accomplice who killed somebody.
Critics complained the “felony murder rule” was used disproportionately against women, young people, and minorities, and said it didn’t actually blame the murder on the correct people, the Sacramento Bee reported.
But law enforcement and victim’s advocacy groups strongly objected to the change and said that it allowed criminals to go free after they had participated in bringing about the death of another person.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy and now-State Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) call the new proposal too lenient on willful participants in crime, and cited the example of someone who drove someone to a location to kill another person, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"What if it was your family member lying there dead?” Cooper asked from the floor of the assembly.
When the new law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, hundreds of inmates in California prison will be able to petition the court for reduced sentences, the Los Angeles Times reported.
For future accomplices to murders, it means the threat of significantly less prison time.
Convicted murderer Bobby Garcia, who served 21 years in prison, was one of the loudest proponents lobbying for the change to the felony murder law.
He told the Los Angeles Times that while he felt young people should be held accountable for their actions, some of them don’t know any better.
“They should be held in prison, but they shouldn’t be held in prison for the rest of their lives for a crime they didn’t do,” Garcia said.
He was in 9th grade when he and his friends robbed and killed a man for gas money to get to a party. He claimed he only punched the man, and that he was sitting in the car when his friends stabbed their victim to death.
Garcia told the Los Angeles Times that people who weren’t raised like him wouldn’t understand why they decided to rob someone for gas money. But the convicted felon said robbing people made sense at the time to kids living in rough neighborhoods or dysfunctional homes.
“Money was not something we came by, it was something that usually we had to beg for,” he said.
Lawmakers say that the goal isn't to go easier on criminals, but it's to reduce prison populations.
The new felony murder law is just the latest in a series of criminal justice policies being enacted under the Brown administration to reduce the number of prisoners incarcerated in the California prison system, the Los Angeles Times.
Lawmakers have already done away with cash bail, and have reduced sentences for teenagers under the age of 15, in this legislative cycle.
In September, Brown commuted the sentences of 20 murderers who were supposed to serve life in prison without parole.
He had already commuted the life sentences of another 62 criminals since 2011, and still has four months left in office.
In addition to the staggering number of commutations, Brown has also doled out over 1,100 pardons to criminals convicted of forgery, drunk driving, and drug sales offenses.