There’s policy, and there’s politics.
That played out Thursday in some high drama at the Legislature — during its last day before a month-long summer vacation — as lawmakers resuscitated a contentious criminal justice bill.
Assembly Republicans tried to force a floor vote on the bill — which won unanimous approval in the state Senate but was in dire jeopardy in the Assembly — to make child trafficking a serious felony, leading to longer prison sentences for repeat offenders.
At one point during the five-minute debate, there was a tense exchange between Assemblymember Heath Flora, a Republican from Ripon, and new Democratic Majority Leader Isaac Bryan from Culver City. Flora urged his fellow lawmakers to choose a team — “pick pedophiles or children.”
In response, Bryan said Flora was disparaging his fellow lawmakers, which is against the rules of the Legislature, for “personally suggesting that members of this body support human trafficking.”
In the end, the Democratic majority voted 43-17 to send the bill back to the Assembly public safety committee, which blocked the bill on Tuesday (with only the two Republicans voting “yes” and the six Democrats not voting), setting off a series of political fireworks.
After the fiery floor debate, the committee hearing was anti-climatic, except for the applause and whoops at the end: With committee Chairperson Reggie Jones-Sawyer not allowing any discussion, the panel quickly reversed itself and voted 6-0 (with Democrats Mia Bonta of Oakland and Bryan abstaining) to move the bill on to the Assembly appropriations committee.
Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, ended up voting “yes” and later told reporters he would do everything in his power to get it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. As chairperson for “quite some time,” Jones-Sawyer also said that he was used to receiving backlash, but he was particularly appalled by threats he said had been made against women on the committee.
- Jones-Sawyer: “We could have an honest debate but my God, you should not threaten a woman because of her personal feelings…. And the kind of ‘Trumpian’ hate that was vilified on members of the Democratic Party who have done a tremendous amount of work in this space is just wrong.”
Republicans Celebrate the Reversed Vote
Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, gathered alongside the bill’s author, Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, to celebrate the vote and pose for Twitter photos. They announced that the bill picked up 18 new co-authors — mostly Democrats — during Thursday’s floor session.
- GOP Assembly leader James Gallagher of Chico: “It shouldn’t be this hard to protect our kids. I think the California public is saying enough is enough. The pendulum has to swing back to a reasonable middle, where we are actually protecting the people of this state.”
To understand all the drama on Thursday, here’s the back story:
Some Democrats believe that mass incarceration under California’s “three-strikes” law was a huge mistake that particularly harmed communities of color.
That includes Jones-Sawyer. “Spending billions of dollars on punishment means those dollars are unavailable to help victims and prevent the crime from happening in the first place,” said in a statement. “Criminals already take up a disproportionate amount of funding — spending more to punish more is a poor use of state resources.”
But it’s a heavier lift for Democrats to explain why they are skeptical of the bill than for Republicans to tweet attacks. Opponents of the bill argue that the measure would contribute to over-incarceration, would needlessly extend already-significant prison sentences, and would punish those at the lowest rungs of trafficking who may be victims of human trafficking themselves, explain CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara and intern Anabel Sosa.
Hayward Dem: I ‘Made a Bad Decision’ With Earlier Vote
Other Democrats have an eye on the 2024 primary, less than eight months away, and worry that Republicans will succeed in painting them as soft on crime.
And that definitely includes Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Hayward Democrat on the committee, who before the floor session said she “made a bad decision” on Tuesday and voted “yes” on Thursday. “Voting against legislation targeting really bad people who traffic children was wrong,” she added in her tweet.
Said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Porterville: “I’m pleased that the Public Safety Committee has finally come to their senses and passed SB 14, designating the human trafficking of children as a serious felony, punishable with enhanced penalties. This bill should have passed the Committee on Tuesday. While it’s unfortunate that we’ll now have to wait until after the month-long summer recess to pass this bill, it’s still progress that enough of the Public Safety Committee reversed their vote and approved this important bill.”
(GV Wire contributed to this report.)
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About the Author
Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.