The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned decisions made by the Legislature’s Assembly Public Safety Committee this year following the blockage of measures to address growing concerns surrounding fentanyl distribution and criminal activity.
Such outcomes were routine for proposals seeking to increase sentencing and punitive measures to reduce crime—including rape, robbery, shoplifting, drug dealing, and assault, among others—during the now-concluded first portion of the 2023–2024 legislative session.
Several legislators mentioned the difficulty of passing legislation through the Public Safety Committee, suggesting that what many said were common sense bills were stifled by a handful of its members.
When one bill did eventually manage to clear the committee this year—after a tumultuous path—one lawmaker said he was equally grateful and surprised.
“I’ve been here for nine years, and this is the first time that we’ve had this kind of debate, because this is the first time that a bill to increase penalties, in my recollection, has gotten through the Assembly Public Safety Committee,” Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) told colleagues while speaking on the Assembly floor on Sept. 11. “This bottled-up debate that we’re having on this floor is just part of what the rest of California is saying: that we need to restore balance.”
Arguing in support of a bill that the committee initially blocked, Senate Bill 14—authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) to strengthen penalties for those repeatedly convicted of child sex trafficking crimes—Mr. Muratsuchi called for a change of priorities.
“We need to do more to keep our neighborhoods and our communities safe,” he said. “And I believe, as a Democrat who has introduced at least five bills that died in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, that we need to restore that balance to this house.”
While supported by 64 co-authors and a majority of the Legislature, the bipartisan SB 14 failed to pass the eight-member committee when first heard earlier this year, with Democratic members choosing not to vote.
Gov. Gavin Newsom weighed in by expressing his disappointment in the bill’s failure and worked with lawmakers behind the scenes to find a solution.
“I talked to Senator Grove about it ... which is indicative of my desire to see what we can do,” Mr. Newsom told reporters at the time.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Intense and immediate public outrage ensued, with thousands of calls, emails, and petitions protesting the decision ultimately forcing those responsible for killing the bill to call for an unprecedented emergency hearing to reconsider the proposal.
Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City) convinced the Assembly to choose that path to preempt Republican plans to force a vote on the bill by the full Assembly.
The bill ultimately passed the committee though Mr. Bryan, and fellow committee member Mia Bonta (D-Oakland), who’s married to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, abstained from voting.
It was the second time this year that public attention forced the committee to reverse course on decisions made.
A number of proposals pertaining to toughening sentencing related to fentanyl were summarily dismissed in March by committee Chair Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), without a hearing or vote on the matter.
Protesting his actions, family members of fentanyl overdose victims, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials gathered in April for a press conference in front of the Capitol—with a dump truck parked behind the group representing the volume of nearly 29,000 pounds of fentanyl seized in California in 2022. That’s enough of the drug to kill more than 6.4 billion people, according to Drug Enforcement Administration calculations.
While the attention led to Mr. Jones-Sawyer granting special hearings for the bills a few weeks later, all but one—Assembly Bill 701, authored by Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton), to increase penalties for possession of at least one kilogram of the synthetic opioid—failed to pass.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson’s (R-Fresno) Assembly Bill 1058—strengthening penalties for possession of 28.35 grams or more of fentanyl—was upheld by the committee on the grounds that incarcerating drug dealers is a “failed War on Drugs” strategy.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (C) speaks at a press conference in front of the state Capitol to protest the Assembly Public Safety Committee’s recent decision to not hear bipartisan fentanyl bills in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2023. (Courtesy of Assemblyman Jim Patterson’s office)
Another bill designed to increase penalties for those convicted of raping a disabled child—Assembly Bill 808, authored by Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Visalia)—was also blocked by the group, with some members denouncing attempts to add jail time as “ineffective.”
Legislative documents reveal dozens of bills—many related to crime—stalled in the committee this year, with authors from both parties seeing their bills denied.
Chair Stands Behind Decisions
The chair of the committee, however, defended his decisions, noting the passage of 197 out of the 252 bills heard by the group—119 of which were subsequently signed into law.
“All bills were given equal consideration, heard, and debated on their merits; I oversaw and managed hundreds of bills helping to enhance each policy by scrutinizing its intent, goal(s), and whether it replaced, updated, or was attempting to create new law,” Mr. Jones-Sawyer told The Epoch Times by email on Oct. 18.
“All-in-all, my work this year served to update, fix, and establish sound policy that benefits our children and our communities while giving law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges more tools and resources to combat crime and criminals.”
Deflecting criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike that the committee upheld legislation related to public safety, the committee chair suggested that the process is still ongoing for some bills that stalled under his watch.
“A few bills that did not pass through this year will remain in a working stage until next year, when they may, or may not, be brought up again with either new language provided by the bill’s author or recommendations provided by my committee to gain the needed support to advance,” he wrote. “Only a small number of bills died in my committee for various reasons.”
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer attends the MedMen Red Jacket Preparation launch with Brotherhood Crusade in Culver City, Calif., on Nov. 7, 2019. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for MedMen)
One such measure still in a working stage held for “interim study” by the committee this year, Assembly Bill 955—authored by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine)—is designed to increase penalties for those convicted of selling controlled substances on social media, including fentanyl.
“[It was the] first time I’ve heard that phrase,” Ms. Petrie-Norris told The Epoch Times, referring to the apparently newly coined “interim study,” after the hearing in April.
The future of AB 955 remains uncertain, with the measure “retained in committee” and the subject matter referred to the Rules Committee for further study.
Seen by some as a tactic to prevent bills from reaching the floor and receiving open debate from the Legislature, Mr. Jones-Sawyer defended his actions.
“My overall goal is to ensure all Californians are both protected by good policy and not harmed (or further harmed) by bad policy,” he said. “Sometimes, as Chair, I play both offense and defense, but I am always looking for compromise and always eager to hear both sides of an argument.”
Looking for Solutions
One critic of the process suggested that agenda-driven committee members are preventing bills from being fully debated by lawmakers on the floor and thus jeopardizing public safety.
“It’s absurd that it’s called the Public Safety Committee, and they don’t let any public safety bills out,” Ms. Grove, author of the child sex trafficking law that overcame the committee with the support of the public, told The Epoch Times on Oct. 18. “These people know that there is a very good chance that someone is going to die, and they still won’t let us, Democrat or Republican, get a bill passed that addresses fentanyl.”
With property crimes skyrocketing across the state, robberies targeting luxury retailers, and record numbers of vehicle thefts in some cities, lawmakers additionally sought to address the problem with a number of proposals this year, only to see them die at the hands of the safety committee.
“I can’t tell you how many smash-and-grab bills we’ve introduced,” Ms. Grove said. “People in disadvantaged neighborhoods are paying the price because stores are closing due to all the theft, and the people in those communities want these people arrested.”
Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) speaks during a committee hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on July 11, 2023. (California State Assembly/Screenshot via The Epoch Times)
Further complicating matters are amendments that are essentially forced on authors by the committee chair if bills are to pass, she said.
“The amendments that they want [some authors] to take are crazy,” Ms. Grove said. “There’s no rhyme or reason.”
Mr. Jones-Sawyer, chair since 2017 and member of the committee since 2013, is soon termed out—with 2024 the last year he can serve in the Assembly. He’s seeking a seat on the Los Angeles City Council representing District 10.
Given his authority to assign committee chairs, critics are looking for Speaker Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) to take a different approach when making his appointments—which could come at any time—although the speaker has remained silent on the matter and declined requests for comment.
“You would think he would want more moderate individuals in the Public Safety Committee because crime is running rampant in the state of California, and we have to be able to get bills on the governor’s desk for him to sign,” Ms. Grove said. “If you didn’t have these individuals who are so far to the left on public safety but are more moderate ... you could balance the committee so that good policy could get out.”