SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law Monday reducing the maximum penalty for misdemeanors by one day – a change expected to significantly reduce the number of immigrants in the country legally who are deported for lesser crimes.
Federal law allows legal immigrants to be deported if they are given a sentence of one year or more. But California law now defines misdemeanors as crimes qualifying for jail terms of a year or less.
As of Jan. 1, SB1310 will reduce the maximum penalty for misdemeanors to 364 days to conform to the federal law.
“Amazingly, the fact that it’s 364 means it’s not an aggravated felony under federal law,” said Steven Rease, a criminal defense attorney in Monterey County. “It’s a very small change in terms of 365, 364, but it’s going to make all the difference in the world to a legal immigrant…whose chances of deportation are greatly reduced.”
Rease is co-chairman of the legislative committee of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which represents defense attorneys and sought the change in state law.
He estimated the change could affect thousands of people in California, based on the scores of cases he has seen mainly among farm workers in his county who have been convicted of misdemeanors for things like writing bad checks.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles also projected the change could affect thousands of immigrants in California. It estimated that more than 100,000 children legally residing in the United States had a parent deported for a misdemeanor crime between 1997 and 2007. It said similar legal changes have been adopted by Nevada and Washington state.
“While the federal government continues to turn a blind eye to our broken immigration system, California continues to advance state legislation to ensure aspiring citizens are integrated into our fabric instead of being in the shadows,” the group’s policy and advocacy director, Joseph Villela, said in a statement.
There was no organized opposition to the bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. It had bipartisan support, passing the Senate on a 31-4 vote and clearing the Assembly 68-1.
Lara said the existing law can result in deportation even if the immigrant had most of a yearlong sentence suspended and served only a few days in jail.
Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, those convicted of aggravated felonies as defined in federal law can be deported without a hearing and with no chance to appeal. They also face tougher criminal penalties if they return to the United States illegally. The conviction can also make them ineligible for asylum or citizenship.
The bill does not affect deportations of those who are in the country illegally nor of those convicted of committing felonies under California law.