Senator Cortese Bill Allowing Judicial Review of Old Sentences Clears First Committee

A bill by Senator Dave Cortese allowing judges to review life-without-parole and death penalty sentences for people who have been incarcerated for at least 20 years cleared its first policy committee on Tuesday.

SB 94, which earned adequate votes to pass the Senate Public Safety Committee, would restore judicial discretion for people whose offenses date before June 5, 1990. The law would give judges the chance to consider whether decades-old sentences imposed during a tough-on-crime era should be sustained.

“SB 94 would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year by giving elder inmates the right to judicial review,” said Senator Cortese (D-San Jose). “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. This inmate population deserves a path to parole.”

SB 94 would allow a person to petition for judicial review if their offense occurred before June 5, 1990, if they have served a minimum of 20 years, and they have been convicted of a special circumstance enumerated in Penal Code 190.2. If a person qualified, the court would be able to modify the petitioner's sentence and apply changes in law that reduce sentences or provide for judicial discretion — unless the court determined that the petitioner was an unreasonable risk to public safety.

Research shows there is little risk for elderly individuals to re-offend or recidivate upon release. For individuals previously sentenced to life without parole who were granted a commutation and released, the recidivism rate is zero percent.

The majority of people serving a life without parole sentence are classified as low risk, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In fact, 88% of people serving life without parole have been assessed with the lowest risk score on CDCR’s California Static Risk Assessment tool.

On average, it costs California a little more than $106,000 per year to keep someone in prison, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. That figure doubles or triples for inmates over 55 or older with chronic health issues, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Approximately 820 people would be eligible for sentencing review under SB 94, according to an analysis of CDCR data. Nearly 99 percent of them are over the age of 50, and over 90 percent of them have served over 30 years. The bill does NOT automatically let people out of prison. It does not guarantee resentencing. SB 94 simply creates a process for the judicial review of cases that have not been looked at in decades.

SB 94 is sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Felony Murder Elimination Project, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Families United to End Life Without Parole, Center for Employment Opportunity, FAMM, and The Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition.