In summary

Mandatory life sentences aren’t appropriate for those being sentenced for crimes they did not commit. Senate Bill 300 would create a fairer system.

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By Yvette McDowell, Special to CalMatters

Yvette McDowell served Pasadena as a firefighter/paramedic before becoming an assistant city prosecutor. Now retired, she is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

In 1991, a woman named Tammy Garvin was arrested and charged with a murder she didn’t commit. 

Garvin is a survivor of sexual abuse and trafficking, which began when she was 14 and compounded earlier abuse. The exploitation she suffered came to a head when her abuser — at that time, her boyfriend and pimp — murdered one of her clients. Garvin had driven her abuser to the crime scene to commit a robbery, but she was neither involved in the stabbing that followed nor in the room at the time. She fled the scene with her abuser and was subsequently arrested and charged with felony murder. 

During her trial, prosecutors ignored the patterns of violence Garvin had been subjected to and overlooked patterns of abuse and control that continued in the courtroom: Her abuser threatened to murder her and her father if either of them testified against him. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Her abuser was acquitted and went free.

Why was a woman who suffered years of abuse, and who did not commit the murder, given such a sentence? Because Garvin was prosecuted under California’s “felony murder special circumstances” law, which held her as culpable as her abuser. She had no chance for justice.

The majority of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence, child abuse or trafficking, and are often coerced into involvement in crime by their abuser. Many of the women and transgender people who make up California’s life-without-parole population are charged and sentenced under “felony murder special circumstances” provisions.  

But California has an opportunity to do better for these people through the Sentencing Reform Act of 2021 — Senate Bill 300 — which would bring our penal code more in line with the practical implications of intimate-partner violence research.

With the passage of SB 300, people could not be sentenced to death or life without parole if they did not kill anyone or intend for anyone to die, though they still would be sentenced to at least 25 years to life. The bill also would allow judges to consider all circumstances, such as intimate-partner violence, abuse or trafficking, in their sentencing decisions. 

Right now, if someone dies during the course of certain felony crimes and the prosecutor chooses to charge under the felony-murder-special-circumsance law, those involved must be sentenced to life without parole — even if the death was accidental and there was no intent to harm anyone. In Garvin’s case, her abuser was committing a robbery when the victim died. Despite research demonstrating that abusers can, and do, use fear and intimidation to control and manipulate their victims — including coercing them to engage in criminal activity — judges aren’t allowed to consider all the facts. So Garvin, who didn’t kill anyone, was sentenced for murder.

SB 300 would allow the judge, not the law, to set the prison term. The current policy, which guarantees a long sentence without the possibility of parole, was meant to decrease the likelihood of reoffense. Evidence does not support determinate sentencing as an effective deterrent, however. Research shows that probation and social re-entry programs are more important in reducing recidivism.

“Felony murder special circumstances” provisions, like the one that sent Garvin to prison for life, exact an incredibly high price on individuals but offer no clear public safety benefit. Instead, they contribute to over-incarceration.

Garvin was victimized throughout her life, and that victimization continued in the justice system. Mandating life without parole, including for those who did not kill or intend for anyone to die, is unjust, unfair and long past due for reform. 

California needs policies that make us all safer. Lawmakers need to allow judges to more appropriately mete out justice. They need to pass the Sentencing Reform Act of 2021. 

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