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Changes to California Criminal Law in 2021

by Lindsay Chambers

Significant changes to California’s criminal justice system took effect on Jan. 1, and we’re already seeing the impact of some of these widespread reforms. Here’s a summary of some of the primary developments affecting California criminal law and their implications.

Misdemeanor and Felony Charges

The state’s treatment of misdemeanor and felony offenders is now more lenient. First, instead of punishing misdemeanor offenses, the law now encourages an approach that embraces rehabilitation. Aside from some cases involving domestic violence, sex offenses and stalking, misdemeanor offenders who comply with the terms will have their criminal activity dismissed and their record cleared. 

Another update could also reduce the number of sex offenders currently obligated to register for life by up to 90%. The new law institutes a three-tiered system that ties registration requirements to the crime’s severity. 

Former felons who are on parole will now be eligible to vote in elections, after Californians voted in favor of Proposition 17 on Nov. 3. This measure restored voting rights to approximately 50,000 parolees, who were previously unable to vote until they had completed their incarceration and parole. 

Law Enforcement

In the wake of George Floyd’s death due to police brutality, which sparked nationwide protests, the California state legislature passed AB 1196, which bans chokeholds and carotid holds by law enforcement officers. These holds, which involve applying pressure to a person’s windpipe, can dangerously slow blood supply to the brain, with potentially fatal results. 

AB 1185 also allows counties statewide to establish a sheriff oversight board and inspector general with subpoena power to oversee the sheriff within their jurisdiction.


The consequences for juveniles who interact with the justice system are also different under California state law. Starting Jan. 1, AB 2425 protects juveniles’ police records from public inspection. 

The punishment for children and teens found to be insubordinate, disorderly or causing trouble at school is now much more forgiving. Under AB 901, these juveniles will now receive service from community-based programs, instead of entering probationary programs. Additional changes also strive to remove unruly students from court supervision.

California Racial Justice Act

Another new law that took effect Jan. 1 aims to address inherent racial bias in the criminal justice system. AB 2542, also known as the California Racial Justice Act, allows people charged or convicted of a crime to challenge the ruling if they believe bias against their race, ethnicity or country of origin played a role in their case. Those who successfully prove unfair treatment may qualify to receive a new trial or sentence.

Orange County’s Expert Criminal Defense Attorney

If you need an experienced advocate to defend you in court, contact Southern California’s veteran attorney, Ronald G. Brower. Throughout his 45-year career of practicing law in Orange County, he has made a name for himself by successfully handling many complex, high-profile cases. The Law Office of Ron Brower works to secure the best possible outcomes for our clients facing charges for a wide range of misdemeanors and felonies

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