PROJECTCatalyst Grant Program



Felony Murder Elimination Project

Special Circumstances Conviction Project

Los Angeles, CA

“Special circumstances” is a unique penal code in California that allows the state to sentence a person to death or to life without parole (LWOP). The expansive nature of this code and the unbounded prosecutorial discretion in LWOP cases have resulted in significant racial disparities among California’s LWOP population—disparities misunderstood by Southern California prosecutors, policymakers, law enforcement, and the general public. To mitigate those disparities, the state passed the California Racial Justice Act in 2020, which allows people convicted of or charged with crimes to leverage statistical evidence of racially discriminatory sentencing codes in court. Although the act’s passage represents a major breakthrough in addressing staggering racial disparities resulting from the overcriminalization of people of color, it does little to address LWOP sentencing decisions because data on those decisions are still lacking.

With Catalyst Grant funding, the Felony Murder Elimination Project, in partnership with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, will fill the gap in data around prosecution of people who have been convicted to LWOP. The data will be used to educate the public on the realities of such prosecutions in Southern California, motivate prosecutors to address the sentencing disparities their offices have perpetuated, and make the data usable by and available to public defenders’ offices to assist in litigation, a right afforded by the Racial Justice Act. 


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