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Criminal Justice

Here Are 3 Big New Criminal Justice Laws In California

Two prison watch towers stand in the distance behind a long fence topped with barbed wire. Along one stretch of fence is a small black and white sign with a red strip across the top and the symbol of a lightning bolt striking a person.
File photo: The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California.
(Michal Czerwonka
Getty Images)
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Of the nearly 1,000 new bills Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law last week, some were designed to combat racial discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantages in the justice system.

Here are three of the new laws:

Many Old Conviction Records Will Be Sealed

Eight million Californians have a past conviction or arrest on their record — that makes it harder to get a job or an apartment.

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Current law allows people to permanently seal records of old misdemeanor convictions and arrests, as well as arrests for non-violent felonies that did not result in convictions.

SB 731 expands the law to include felony convictions, except for sex offenses.

To be eligible, a person who has completed a prison sentence for a felony must go four years without getting arrested.

The new law also allows for the sealing of records of arrests for violent felonies that did not result in a conviction.

Some 225,000 Californians who completed their sentences for non-violent felonies and have stayed out of legal trouble for at least four years will automatically have old conviction records sealed when the law takes effect next year, according to the Alliance for Safety and Justice.

Those who served sentences for violent felonies and have not been arrested for at least four years since leaving prison will be eligible to petition a judge to have their records sealed, the group told LAist. The Alliance estimates there will be more than 1 million people in that category by the time the law takes effect.

The law takes effect Jan 1, but records can be sealed starting July 1, 2023, according to the text of the legislation.

“It’s a great day for California, a great day for public safety, a great day for the economy.” said Jay Jordan, chief operating officer of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, claiming the legislation will help more people get jobs and homes.

Jordan said once the courts open again on Jan. 3rd after the holidays, he expects lines of people in courthouses across the state to turn in the form — CR 180 — needed to petition for expungement.

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“We will be doing a massive push to have people meet us at the court,” Jordan said. “We will be setting up zoom calls for people to fill out their CR 180s.”

While people will be able to get records of old convictions sealed, their conviction history will still be shared with law enforcement and schools.

Phone Calls From Prisons Will Be Free

When you get a call from an incarcerated person, one of you has to pay for it.

Prices have gone down — they dropped recently to as low as 2.5 cents per minute for people in the California state prison system.

But backers of SB 1008 argued even cheaper calls can be a financial burden for many.

The new law will make calls to and from state prisons and state and local juvenile detention facilities free. (An earlier version included local jails, but that was removed from the bill.) It also prohibits local government agencies from receiving revenue for communication services.

SB 1008 goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Prison and jail phone calls are a $1.4 billion dollar industry nationwide.

A 2015 survey from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and other organizations found one out of three families of incarcerated people go into debt due to phone calls and visits with their loved ones behind bars.

Rap Lyrics Can’t Be Used In Criminal Proceedings

Last May, rappers Young Thug, Gunna and others were indicted in a federal racketeering case in which prosecutors used their rap lyrics as evidence of gang activity.

Rap lyrics from “Bad Boy” were used by federal prosecutors to allege criminal gang activity in Young Thug’s indictment.

That won’t happen anymore in California, at least in state courts. The new law, AB 2799, makes California the first state in the country to limit criminal liability stemming from “creative expression” — including rap lyrics.

To be allowed as evidence, lyrics would have to be directly part of the alleged crime.

The law goes into effect on Jan.1.

Musicians and other backers of the new law say using rap lyrics in criminal proceedings is racist and unfairly targets Black and brown artists.

Advocates are pushing for similar federal legislation.

Vetoed Bills

Newsom also vetoed a few high-profile criminal justice bills.

Rejected: Changes To Solitary Confinement

The Mandela Act, or AB 2632, would have defined and regulated the use of solitary confinement in detention facilities. It would have ended solitary confinement entirely for prisoners who are pregnant, under 26 years old or over 59 years old, or who have a mental or physical disability.

It would have also banned holding anyone outside those populations in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or more than 45 days in a 180-day period

Similar legislation already exists in New York and Colorado.

“We’ve come a long way, right, as a society in terms of how we treat people with certain mental health conditions, and the way that we think about things like civil commitment — and I think solitary confinement falls within the same category,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, the advocacy director for Immigrant Defense Advocates, in an interview before the veto.

“I think in a decade from now or more, people will look back at the practice, and say, how did we ever lock people away like that, and assume position outcomes?” Yazdan Panah said.

Rejected: Ending Open-Ended Youth Probation

AB 503 would have ended unlimited periods of probation for young people by adding a six month check-in requirement to determine whether a young person should be taken off probation.

In 2021, Newsom signed into law a bill that reduced the term of adult probation to one year for a misdemeanor and two years for a felony. However, youth probation has no such limitations.

In 2020, 87% of youth on probation in California were young people of color, according to a report from the National Center for Youth Law and the W. Haywood Burns Institute.

Young people on probation face restrictions that impede their access to employment and school events.

In Newsom’s Sept. 29 veto letter, he said he was concerned the legislation would create “additional workload” for courts and probation departments as California works to close the state Division of Juvenile Justice by next June.

“Frankly, the message in the veto feels disingenuous to the young people who have been working on this bill, to the communities that have supported it,” said Dafna Gozani, senior policy attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “This bill has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“We had over 140 organizations signed on in support.” she said. “At this point, we are going back to our communities and having those conversations and figuring out our next steps.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said SB 1008 includes local jails. We regret the error.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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