On October 8, 2021, Governor Newsome signed Senate Bill 567 into law, which is one of the most recent criminal justice reform measures designed to reverse the state’s decades-long pattern of over-incarceration. Like many other recent efforts taken by lawmakers to create a more fair and just criminal justice system, SB 567 makes it more challenging for prosecutors to seek lengthy sentences.What is SB 567?
Senate Bill 567 (“SB 567”) is a sentencing reform bill originally drafted by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena). The bill requires a judge considering the imposition of a sentence consisting of an upper term to submit the underlying facts to a jury which must find those facts were proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.
The bill is the most recent development in what has been a long-standing challenge to California’s determinate sentencing laws. California’s determinate sentencing law was originally enacted in 1977 and allowed for judges to impost one of three authorized sentences: a low term, a middle term or a high term. By default, a judge was required to impose the middle term unless there were aggravating or mitigating circumstances justifying an upward or downward departure. Back then, the judge would hear the facts surrounding the presence of an aggravating or mitigating factor and make the ultimate sentencing decision. Notably, the judge needed to find the existence of either aggravating or mitigating factors beyond a preponderance of the evidence.
In 2000, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Apprendi v. New Jersey, holding that any fact that subjects a defendant to a punishment above the statutory maximum must be presented to the jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Seven years later, in Cunningham v. California, the United States Supreme Court found that California’s determinate sentencing law violated the rule announced in Apprendi. More specifically, the Court determined that the determinate sentencing law violated a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to a trial by jury because it allowed a judge to make findings that exposed a defendant to a longer period of incarceration
In the wake of Cunningham, California’s determinate sentencing law was rendered unconstitutional. Thus, lawmakers scrambled to come up with a replacement. Rather than engage in meaningful reform of the state’s sentencing laws, lawmakers allowed judges to continue to use their discretion except in cases where the statute at issue made the middle term the default sentence. In these cases, the court must submit the facts to a jury and can only impose a high-term sentence if the jury found the facts proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
More than 14 years later, California lawmakers finally came up with a permanent solution. Under the new law, courts are required to impose the middle term “there are circumstances in aggravation of the crime that justify the imposition of a term of imprisonment exceeding the middle term, and the facts underlying those circumstances have been stipulated to by the defendant, or have been found true beyond a reasonable doubt at trial by the jury or by the judge in a court trial.” Further, SB 567 requires the judge, at the defendant’s request, to submit the facts of the aggravating circumstances to a separate jury.Who is Eligible for Relief Under SB 567?
On its face, SB 567 applies to everyone, regardless of age, provided they were convicted of a felony offense that provides for three possible terms of punishment, and they were sentenced to the high term of imprisonment. Thus, anyone with an open case will benefit from SB 567.
SB 567 also provides the possibility of retroactive relief, meaning it can help those inmates who were convicted years ago and are still serving their sentences. However, there are different procedures in place for those who were convicted as an adult versus those who were convicted of a crime that was committed when they were under 18 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”).How to Bring a Successful Claim Under SB 567
As a stand-alone law, SB 567 is not retroactive in the traditional sense. However, in conjunction with other recently passed legislation, SB 567 provides another way for inmates to obtain a resentencing hearing. Additionally, those convicted and sentenced to LWOP as a juvenile have the possibility for an automatic review of their sentence.Inmates Sentenced to LWOP as Juveniles
Anyone who was convicted of a crime that occurred before they turned 18 and was sentenced to a high term can submit a petition to the court requesting a resentencing hearing once they have served 15 years of their sentence. However, inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for an offense where the following facts were pled and proved are not eligible for SB 567 relief:
- The defendant is alleged to have tortured the victim; or
- The victim was a public safety official, firefighter, or any other state, federal, or local law enforcement officer.
Absent one of these circumstances, an inmate must submit an original petition to the sentencing court and serve a copy of the petition to the local District Attorney. In this petition, the inmate must aver the following:
- They were under 18 at the time of the offense;
- They were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; and
- A statement describing the defendant’s remorse and efforts at rehabilitation.
Additionally, a defendant must submit a statement to the court indicating at least one of the following is true:
- The inmate was convicted under a felony-murder or aiding-and-abetting theory;
- The inmate does not have any other serious juvenile felony adjudications that are currently being considered for recall;
- The inmate committed the offense with at least one adult codefendant; or
- The defendant has rehabilitated themselves.
If the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that any of these four facts are true, it must recall the inmate’s sentence and schedule a resentencing hearing.Inmates Convicted for Crimes Committed as Adults and Juveniles Serving Sentences Other Than LWOP
SB 567 is silent on the law’s retroactivity pertaining to any inmate other than those sentenced to LWOP for a crime committed while under the age of 18. Typically, this means that courts will not find SB 567, on its own, is retroactive. However, that does not mean that SB 567 relief is beyond their reach. This is due to the interplay between SB 567 and already existing remedies.
More specifically, AB 2942 and 1170(d)(1) allow for the local District Attorney’s office or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) to recommend an inmate’s sentence be recalled. Under each of these provisions, either the District Attorney or the CDCR can recommend an inmate for resentencing at any time. Some of the factors that the District Attorney’s office or CDCR consider when reviewing a request for resentencing hearings include:
- An inmate’s disciplinary record;
- An inmate’s record of rehabilitation;
- An inmate’s reduced risk of future violence; and
- Evidence that reflects that circumstances have changed since the inmate’s original sentencing so that the inmate’s continued incarceration is no longer in the interest of justice
Certainly, there is a good argument that the passage of a new sentencing law such as SB 567 is evidence suggesting circumstances have changed since the inmate’s original sentence and that their continued incarceration is no longer in the interests of justice. In this way, SB 567, although not retroactive on its own, provides another way for inmates serving lengthy terms of imprisonment to obtain a resentencing hearing.
To obtain relief through SB 567, however, an inmate does not file an SB 567 petition but instead should file an AB 2942 petition with the District Attorney’s office in the convicting county or an 1170(d)(1) petition with the CDCR.How an Award-Winning California Criminal Appeals Lawyer Can Help With an SB 567 Petition
With the passage of SB 567, inmates who were sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when they were a juvenile and inmates convicted as adults may be eligible for a resentencing hearing. However, it is essential that inmates work with an experienced California post-conviction lawyer when seeking this relief.
For inmates convicted as an adult who are seeking a resentencing hearing through an AB 2942 or 1170(d)(1) petition, they must convince either the District Attorney or the CDCR that a resentencing hearing is appropriate. Both of these entities have an incredible amount of discretion and receive countless resentencing petitions. Thus, it is imperative that inmates put significant effort into their petition. The best approach to developing a compelling claim in resentencing petition is to create a character package.
A character package is a legal memorandum followed by a packet of documentation that explains why an inmate's continued incarceration is not in the interests of justice. Character packages should be custom-tailored to each inmate’s unique situation and, at a minimum, include the following:
- Documentation of all employment positions held;
- Educational classes and degrees obtained since an inmate’s incarceration;
- Laudatory Chronos or other acknowledgments from correctional officers of an inmate’s good conduct;
- Letters from friends and family highlighting specific instances that illustrate an inmate’s rehabilitation;
- Letters of support from community members;
- Participation in religious organizations;
- Self-help, job-training and victim-awareness courses that were taken during an inmate’s period of incarceration;
- Volunteer efforts; and
- Anything else that may illustrate an inmate has undergone efforts to rehabilitate themselves.
An experienced California criminal appeals lawyer can assist inmates in gathering all necessary evidence documenting their rehabilitation to highlight why they are a good candidate for resentencing. Additionally, if an inmate is granted a resentencing hearing, an attorney will be effective at advocating for a reduced sentence to the judge. In some cases, a lawyer may be able to obtain an agreement with the District Attorney or the CDCR that an inmate’s immediate release is in the interest of justice.Speak With an Award-Winning California Post-Conviction Lawyer About Obtaining SB 567 Relief
If you or a loved one is serving a lengthy prison sentence consisting of a high term, reach out to the California criminal appeals lawyers at Power Trial Lawyers At Power Trial Lawyers, attorney Matthew Barhoma and his dedicated team of post-conviction lawyers have successfully secured the early release of several clients through their diligent and aggressive advocacy. Given the firm’s impressive track record of identifying inmates deserving of another chance, Power Trial Lawyers has fostered a positive relationship with the District Attorneys’ offices across the state, as well as with the CDCR. To learn more about the application process for SB 567 relief, and to schedule a free consultation today, contact Power Trial Lawyers at (213) 800-7664. You can also reach the firm through its online contact form.
SB 567 - Legal Info