California Assemblymember Ash Kalra described as historic Governor Gaven Newsom signing into law Bill 2542, called the California Racial Justice Act, that prohibits the use of race, ethnicity, or national origin in sentencing and convictions in the state.
Kalra, a Democrat who represents California’s Assembly District 27 and is the first Indian-American California Assemblymember, is the author of the bill.
“California is the first state in the nation to have the Racial Justice Act applied to all criminal cases, so it’s making history and we hope to see this spread to other states,” Kalra told indica News.
“It is not about people should not be punished for a crime, but it’s about making sure that race or nationality did not play a role in giving a more severe outcome,” he said.
Kalra, who has served in the Santa Clara County public defender’s office for 11 years, said he cannot deny racism based on nationality and appearance has been going on for generations.
When asked how the bill favors the South Asian community, Kalra said that it allows anyone to challenge if there is an indication that race has played a role while they were arrested and/or how they are charged.
“Now they have a chance to make an argument and then the judge would decide based on the facts,” said Kalra, who started the work on the bill past November.
Asked to cite examples, Kalra said that after 9/11 there were number of cases where turbaned Sikhs were were targeted more by the FBI and law enforcement.
“So, we want to make sure that law treats everyone the same, and not based on faith,” said Kalra. “Again, I would say targeting certain people just because of the way they look, the faith they practice faith or what country they are from is racism. I say they should be treated on facts of the case not race, culture or nationality.”
California-based Amar Shergill, trial attorney at the Shergill law firm and a community leader, agreed with Kalra.
“AB 2542 is a landmark civil rights bill that finally allows attorneys an opportunity to prove to the judge that racism or bias is preventing a fair trial. In the past, those that were convicted by biased prosecutors, judges or even juries had to wait years to have an appeal heard. Now they can have the issue heard at trial,” Shergill told indica News.
“Assemblymember Kalra’s leadership on this issue will benefit Californians for generations,” said Shergill. “This isn’t just an issue for those accused of crimes. In my own experience as a trial attorney, South Asians are almost always pushed out by opposing attorneys and I know it’s not a coincidence.”
Asked whether there was opposition to the bill from California diostroict attorneys, Kalra said: “They think we have enough constitutional protections. But the fact that we see huge discrepancies specially when the defendant is African or Latino [belies that claim]. They are sentenced more severally based on their race.”
“We are a free country, but even at the federal level we have seen how Trump has pushed Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims back to India and people of color have been deported. He is not our friend,” said Kalra.
According to reports by the Judicial Council, the breakdown by race among those convicted of felonies is: White: 28.3 percent; Asian and Pacific Islander: 29.3 percent; Hispanic: 37.5 percent and Black: 40.3 percent.
“The Racial Justice Act is a step toward addressing the deep-rooted racism in our courts and in healing for communities plagued by harmful policies and overrepresented in our prisons and courts,” Fatimeh Khan, California Healing Justice Program co-director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), said through a press note.
“In its 70 years working on criminal legal issues in California, the AFSC has witnessed the entrenchment of racist policies that have devastated Black and Brown communities. We thank Governor Newsom for signing such a powerful piece of legislation.”
Liza Chu, California policy manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, California said through a press note: “Amidst the upheaval of 2020, we thank Governor Newsom for enacting the Racial Justice Act to prioritize fairness and equal treatment under the law.”