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California To Ease Mandatory Sentences, Ban Facial Recognition On Police Body Cameras

California will soon end some mandatory sentences, make it easier to expunge old criminal records, bar charging inmates for medical care and ban police from using facial recognition software on body cameras under more than two dozen criminal justice bills that freshman Gov. Gavin Newsom announced signing into law late Tuesday.

The measures continue the state’s march away from get-tough measures that once clogged California prisons, prompting a federal court-ordered population cap.

Among the measures are two that remove mandatory sentences. One ends a one-year enhancement added to current sentences for each prior felony jail or prison term. The other ends mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, leaving the sentences to judges’ discretion.

State officials estimated that about 10,000 inmates currently have the one-year bumps in their sentences. Eliminating that requirement alone could shave tens of millions of dollars a year from prison and jail costs. But the measure was opposed even by some of Newsom’s fellow Democrats who supported longer sentences for repeat felons.

Newsom said in a statement that the bills overall “show a new path to ensure our state moves closer toward a more equitable criminal justice system,” while some “give hope to those that have earned a second chance in our communities.”

Among them is what the reform group Californians for Safety and Justice called a landmark bill that gives California one of the nation’s most expansive automated expungement processes for certain convictions.

The measure requires the state to automatically clear records after people complete their sentences for certain felonies, as well as for those who were arrested but never convicted. The group estimated that eight million Californians have convictions or records that can make it more difficult to obtain jobs or housing. Pennsylvania and Utah also both recently adopted automated expungement laws.

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco said his bill will make it easier for those who are already entitled to have their records cleared under existing law, but often don’t follow through on the cumbersome process.

While many of the bills Newsom signed will take effect in January, Ting’s bill will automate record clearance for those arrested starting in 2021. He cited a California Policy Lab estimate that more than a million people will have a new detention, arrest, or conviction in the first five years, and about 44% will be eligible to have one or more cases expunged.

Another bill makes California the first state to bar health and dental co-pays for inmates, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which was among the groups supporting the measure. California is one of nine state prison systems that already banned the charges, but the group said California is the first to also abolish the practice in county jails.

The ACLU also supported the measure barring police from using facial recognition software in body-worn cameras. Ting, who also carried that bill, said the face-tracking technology “essentially turns body cameras into a 24-hour surveillance tool.”

He was among 26 state legislators falsely identified when the ACLU ran their faces through a database of mugshots. But the California Police Chiefs Association said the technology could save time and resources by helping officers identify suspects, and one technology provider said the ACLU’s test was flawed.

New Hampshire and Oregon also ban facial tracking software in body cameras, while San Francisco, Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, block any use of facial recognition technology by police and other city agencies.

Among other bills Newsom signed are ones extending the deadline for victims of violent crime to seek compensation from three to seven years; requiring law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits for testing within 20 days; and allowing most of those with felony convictions to serve on juries.

CBS San Francisco

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