Frequently Asked Questions on Assembly Bill 256 and California’s Racial Justice Act


Assembly Bill 256 (AB 256) and the California Racial Justice Act (RJA) represent significant legislative efforts to address racial bias and discrimination within the California criminal justice system. This FAQ aims to provide comprehensive answers to common questions about these laws, focusing on their implications for criminal defense and sentencing.

Assembly Bill 256 - the Racial Justice Act

Assembly Bill 256 – the Racial Justice Act

1. What is the California Racial Justice Act (RJA)?

The Racial Justice Act (RJA), enacted through Assembly Bill 2542 in 2020, allows individuals charged with or convicted of crimes to challenge racial bias and discrimination in their cases. The RJA prohibits seeking or obtaining a criminal conviction or imposing a sentence based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. It aims to address both explicit and implicit bias in the criminal justice system​​.

2. What changes did Assembly Bill 256 introduce?

AB 256, also known as the “Racial Justice for All Act,” extends the RJA’s protections retroactively. This means that individuals sentenced before January 1, 2021, can now seek relief under the RJA. The retroactive application will be implemented in stages from January 1, 2023, to January 1, 2026​​​​.

3. Who is eligible to seek relief under AB 256?

Eligibility under AB 256 is phased as follows:

  • January 1, 2023: Individuals sentenced to death or facing immigration consequences.
  • January 1, 2024: Individuals currently incarcerated in state prison, county jail, or the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
  • January 1, 2025: Individuals no longer incarcerated but with a felony conviction or a juvenile case resulting in DJJ commitment post-2015.
  • January 1, 2026: Anyone with a felony conviction or a juvenile case resulting in DJJ commitment, regardless of the date​​​​.

4. What types of bias or discrimination does the RJA address?

The RJA covers bias or discrimination in charging, conviction, and sentencing based on a defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin. Violations can also be based on the victim’s race, ethnicity, or national origin​​​​.

5. What are the four pathways to proving an RJA violation?

  1. Bias outside the courtroom: Racist or biased statements or conduct by a judge, attorney, law enforcement officer, expert witness, or juror outside of court proceedings.
  2. Bias within the courtroom: Racist or biased statements or conduct by these individuals during court proceedings.
  3. Disparities in charging or conviction: Evidence that people of one race are charged or convicted of more serious offenses than those of other races for similar conduct.
  4. Disparities in sentencing: Evidence that people of one race receive harsher sentences or that sentencing is influenced by the race of the victim​​​​.

6. How can an individual file a claim under the RJA or AB 256?

Individuals can file a motion in the trial court or a petition for writ of habeas corpus. The specific procedures depend on whether the individual is currently incarcerated or facing other legal consequences. Detailed procedural steps and required evidence are specified under California Penal Code Section 745 and related sections​​​​.

7. What evidence is needed to prove an RJA violation?

Evidence can include statistical data, aggregate data, expert testimony, and credible witness testimony. The court will consider the totality of evidence, including systemic and institutional racial bias. Reliable, statistical evidence, and aggregated data are admissible for determining whether a violation occurred​​​​​ (CCAP)​.

8. What remedies are available if an RJA violation is proven?

Remedies depend on the nature of the violation:

  • Before judgment: Declaring a mistrial, discharging the jury, dismissing enhancements, or reducing charges.
  • After judgment: Vacating the conviction or sentence, ordering new proceedings, or resentencing​​​​.

9. Does an individual need to show that the bias affected the outcome of their case?

For claims under Pathways 1 and 2, relief is granted unless the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the bias did not affect the outcome. For Pathways 3 and 4, no proof of prejudice is required​​​​​ (CCAP)​.

10. What should individuals do if they believe there was an RJA violation in their case?

Individuals should contact their trial or appellate attorney and explain why they believe there was a violation. They can also wait for the appropriate eligibility date to file a habeas corpus petition. It is advisable to avoid filing pro per petitions without legal counsel as it may limit future legal options​​​​.

11. What steps should be taken if an individual is facing immigration consequences and suspects an RJA violation?

Individuals should contact an immigration attorney or their trial attorney. If they cannot secure representation, they might consider filing a habeas corpus petition, especially if facing imminent deportation​​​​.

12. Can an attorney guarantee eligibility for RJA relief earlier than the specified dates?

No attorney can expedite eligibility for RJA relief earlier than the law allows. Individuals should be cautious of any claims to the contrary and seek references for any attorney they consider hiring​​​​.

13. Are there any special considerations for individuals sentenced to death under the RJA?

Individuals sentenced to death should speak with their appointed attorney or contact the California Appellate Project attorney assigned to them. Filing a pro per petition is not recommended as it may limit future legal options​​​​.

14. How does the RJA address systemic and institutional racial bias?

The RJA requires courts to consider whether systemic and institutional racial bias, racial profiling, and historical patterns of racially biased policing and prosecution contributed to observed disparities​​​​​ (CCAP)​.

15. Where can individuals find more information about the RJA and AB 256?

The RJA is codified in California Penal Code Section 745, and relevant amendments are in Sections 1473 and 1473.7. Individuals can also consult legal resources or contact a criminal defense attorney for more information. More detailed insights and recent case summaries can be found on specialized legal websites such as CCAP.

How an Attorney Can Help

This FAQ aims to provide a thorough understanding of AB 256 and the RJA, highlighting their importance in ensuring fairness and justice in the California criminal justice system. For legal advice specific to individual cases, consulting with a qualified attorney is recommended.

Navigating the complexities of the Racial Justice Act and Assembly Bill 256 can be daunting. A skilled criminal defense attorney can provide invaluable assistance in several key areas:

  1. Case Evaluation: Assessing the specifics of your case to determine eligibility for relief under the RJA and AB 256.
  2. Evidence Gathering: Collecting and presenting evidence to demonstrate racial bias or discrimination.
  3. Filing Petitions: Ensuring all motions and petitions are accurately prepared and timely filed.
  4. Legal Representation: Advocating on your behalf in court to achieve the best possible outcome.

If you believe your case may involve racial bias or discrimination, contact our office today. Call us at 213-800-7664 or submit a contact form to schedule a consultation. Let us help you ensure justice and fairness in your legal proceedings.

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