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We Support a CA Bill to Allow Review of Some LWOP and Death Penalty Cases - WTI Support Letter

"It is difficult to release innocent people from prison, even those with strong innocence claims. This bill provides a pathway to review those cases and potentially release those people."

May 10, 2023

Re: Support for SB 94 (Cortese) Dear Senator Cortese, On behalf of Witness to Innocence, I write in strong support of your bill SB 94 (Cortese). This important bill would allow judges to review life without parole (LWOP) and death penalty sentences for persons who have been incarcerated for at least 20 years and were sentenced for offenses with a “special circumstance” committed before June 5, 1990, the date of a ballot measure that prospectively tied judge’s hands.

Witness to Innocence is the only national organization in the United States composed of and led by people exonerated from death row. Since 1973, 191 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated - 7 of those in California. We know there are innocent people behind bars because our members were once there themselves. Wrongful convictions are a significant problem in the United States—and California is no exception. Since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking wrongful convictions in 1989, there have been nearly 300 known wrongful convictions in California – causing innocent Californians to lose years of their lives. Wrongful convictions undermine our criminal legal system and violate fundamental principles of justice and due process. Estimates on the number of innocent people in prison range from 2-10% of the prison population. The most recent CDCR TPOP4 weekly report, dated 5/3/23, documents 96,065 people in custody. If just 1% of the current population of the CDCR are innocent, that means California is currently incarcerating nearly 1000 innocent people. It is difficult to release innocent people from prison, even those with strong innocence claims. This bill provides a pathway to review those cases and potentially release those people.

Additionally, there are people languishing in state prisons that were they in court today, would receive a more just sentence. In the last ten years, the Legislature has enacted several reforms to restore judicial discretion and to allow judges to consider mitigating factors at sentencing, including whether the person was a victim of intimate partner violence or human trafficking or had experienced childhood trauma, exploitation, or sexual abuse.

Although individuals sentenced to LWOP or death have no path to parole today, many have exhibited decades of exemplary behavior, participated in extensive positive programming, have come to understand the contributing factors which led to their incarceration, and have devoted themselves to becoming positive members of society. Most people serving a life without parole sentence are classified as low risk according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s own California Static Risk Assessment tool - 88% of people serving life without parole have been assessed with the lowest risk score on that scale. Research also conclusively demonstrates that there is little risk for elderly individuals to re- offend or recidivate upon release. For individuals previously sentenced to life without parole in California who were granted a commutation and released, the recidivism rate is zero percent.

This bill does not guarantee resentencing or release. Any individual who is granted resentencing by a judge will then need to go before the parole board, who will make a determination about their suitability for release. This bill allows courts to consider old cases in light of changes in law, thereby applying the law more fairly. This will mean that individuals that deserve a second chance won’t have to die behind bars. For these reasons, our organization strongly supports SB 94 (Cortese).

Respectfully, Herman Lindsey Executive Director, Witness to Innocence Stefanie Anderson Accuracy & Justice Program Manager, Witness to Innocence

SB 94 (Cortese) Support Letter
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