A General Guide to California Sentencing and Resentencing

Navigating the complexities of the California criminal justice system, especially when it comes to sentencing and resentencing, can be daunting. If you or a loved one is serving a lengthy prison sentence, it is important to fully understand all possible options for relief. In this post, our Los Angeles and Orange County Criminal Defense and Appeals lawyers will discuss several recent changes to the law that provide various ways to pursue sentencing and resentencing relief.

California Resentencing Laws--an overview

California Resentencing Laws–an overview

At Power Trial Lawyers, we believe that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to California sentencing law. We recognize that California’s sentencing laws are extraordinarily complex, and, adding to the difficulties, they frequently change. But at Power Trial Lawyers, that’s our job. We are passionate about achieving superior results for our clients in criminal defense and appeals cases. This article will cover Assembly Bill 600, California’s Racial Justice Act (AB 256), Penal Code 1172.1, Penal Code 1170(d) (People v. Heard), Penal Code 1385, and Assembly Bill 333.

1. Assembly Bill 600 – Judge Initiated Resentencing

Passed in 2023, Assembly Bill 600 (“AB 600”) aims to address sentencing disparities and offers relief to inmates who may have been unfairly sentenced. The bill, which is now codified as part of California Penal Code § 1172.1, gives courts the ability to recall and resentence inmates if their original sentence was longer than it would be under current laws. This helps address disparities in sentencing laws, especially if that disparity is due to race or culture. Or even more, if the client is particularly eligible and has suffered an unfair sentence. This new resentencing initiative gives judges the ability to recall sentences, placing them directly on the court’s calendar without any necessary recommendation from the district attorney’s office or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (“CDCR”). 

Eligible candidates include those whose sentences were enhanced due to factors that are no longer considered or no longer considered in the same way, such as certain prior convictions. The key eligibility criteria involve proving that the original sentence would be shorter if imposed under the current legal framework.

2. Racial Justice Act (AB 256)

The Racial Justice Act, enacted through Assembly Bill 256 (“AB 256”), aims to ensure fairness and equality within the judicial system by addressing systemic racism. More specifically, this law recognizes the fact that race has historically played a very real role in criminal sentencing and seeks to rectify the impact of racial discrimination throughout the criminal trial process. The Racial Justice Act allows individuals to challenge their sentences if they can demonstrate that racial bias played a role in their prosecution, sentencing, or in the prosecution’s ability to obtain a conviction. Often, this racial disparity can be seen right in the transcripts where such a racial bias is clear. In other cases, this disparity is demonstrated through the sentence administered to an inmate’s case versus the common norm for others with similar or like case factors. This second approach is much more difficult and may require unique arguments to demonstrate. 

To be eligible, an inmate must provide substantial evidence of racial discrimination, such as biased statements made by prosecutors or statistical data showing racial disparities in sentencing patterns at the time the inmate was sentenced. If you believe you may have a good case meeting the Racial Justice Act, do not fight it alone. You should consult with an attorney to determine the best steps moving forward. 

3. Penal Code 1172.1

Penal Code § 1172.1 provides the mechanism for resentencing in cases where the original sentence is no longer in the interest of justice or was disproportionately harsh. It empowers the court to recall a sentence and resentence an inmate if it finds that the original sentencing was excessive. Historically, a judge had only 120 days to recall a sentence, but under AB 600, that 120-day limitation no longer applies, and a judge can order a resentencing hearing at any time. The CDCR or the District Attorney’s office for the county where the inmate was convicted can also recommend that an inmate be resentenced. 

Eligibility under § 1172.1 often requires a review of the circumstances surrounding the case, including the inmate’s behavior in prison, especially their rehabilitative efforts. There is no requirement to retain an attorney if you wish to pursue this form of resentencing. However, resentencing pursuant to Penal Code 1172.1 takes great sophistication and skill, and it can be quite complex. It is recommended to consult with an experienced criminal defense and appeals lawyer if you wish to pursue resentencing pursuant to Penal Code 1172.1. 

4. Penal Code 1170(d) Resentencing (People v. Heard)

In the case People v. Heard, a California court held that a juvenile who was sentenced to the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole should be able to rely on Penal Code section 1170(d)(1) when seeking a resentencing. The court held that failure to allow such a petition would violate the inmate’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thus, to be eligible for a Heard Petition, an inmate must have been sentenced to the “functional equivalent” of life without the possibility of parole, spent at least 15 years incarcerated, and committed the offense before they were 18 years old. 

People v. Heard provides a strong path forward for offenders who were convicted under the age of 18, and who otherwise meet the criteria. This form of resentencing can be quite complex, and may require much negotiations and legal arguments. While an attorney is not required, it is highly recommended to consult with a California Criminal Defense and appeals lawyer to determine the best arguments pursuant to People v. Heard.

5. California Penal Code 1385

Penal Code § 1385 grants judges the discretion to dismiss charges or strike sentencing enhancements when doing so is in the interest of justice. This provision can be particularly useful in cases where sentencing enhancements would resulted in disproportionately long sentences. Moreover, when used with other laws, this penal code section can be a defendant’s strongest argument in any sentencing setting.

To be eligible, an inmate must typically show that the dismissal of certain charges or enhancements would serve justice better than their enforcement. This code is often invoked in sentencing hearings where there could be a harshly disproportionate enhancement or sentence.

6. Assembly Bill 333

Assembly Bill 333 (“AB 333”) focuses on gang-related sentencing enhancements. AB 333 raised the bar for prosecutors to use gang enhancements as well as provide relief for those who are serving sentences comprised in part by a gang enhancement. For example, AB 333 limits prosecutors’ ability to obtain a gang enhancement by requiring more stringent proof that the crime was committed for the benefit of a gang. The law also provides relief to those who were given enhanced sentences based on allegations of gang involvement without substantial evidence. To qualify for resentencing under AB 333, an inmate must demonstrate that their original sentencing was based on insufficient evidence of gang activity or that their actions did not directly benefit a gang. It is important to note this bill has limited retroactive application, and whether it may apply to your case is a fact-specific analysis.

If you or a loved one believes AB 333 may impact their case, it is recommended to consult with a California Criminal Defense and Appeals attorney.

How a Lawyer Can Help

Understanding these resentencing options can provide a pathway to a reduced sentence. However, each option has specific eligibility criteria, and determining eligibility can be very challenging. Not only that, but pursuing the wrong type of relief (or the right type of relief at the wrong time or in the wrong manner) can have long-lasting effects on the future of your case.

An experienced criminal defense and appeals lawyer can advise you on all your options to ensure that you pursue the resentencing options that are best suited for your case. An attorney can also assist with the preparation of your petition, ensuring that the judge is presented with every reason why you are deserving of a resentencing hearing. For example, many of these resentencing options either depend on or are strengthened by strong evidence of rehabilitation. A post-conviction attorney will know how to obtain the necessary evidence to establish that you’ve been rehabilitated and how to present it in the most compelling way possible.

Consult with a Criminal Defense and Appeals Law Firm

If you believe that you or a loved one may qualify for relief under any of these provisions, reach out to the respected California Criminal Defense and A

ppeals lawyers at Power Trial Lawyers for assistance. We offer free consultations, during which we will answer your questions, outline your options, and explain what we will do to help you obtain a resentencing hearing. You can reach our California Criminal Defense and Appeals lawyers by calling 213-800-7664. You can also connect with us through our secure online contact form. 


**The content in this article was written in July of 2024 and may be subject to change. If you believe you qualify for resentencing or are facing a sentencing hearing, consult with an attorney for up-to-date information in regard to your specific case.**

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