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Despite Opposition, California Governor Moves to Reduce Prison Terms

by Matt Clarke

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced his intention of getting a voter initiative to reduce the length of time nonviolent prisoners would spend in prison onto the ballot, it engendered opposition ... and a sense of irony. Brown was the governor who ushered in California's "tough-on-crime" era by signing the 1977 determinate sentencing law. Now, he calls that law an "abysmal failure," admits it had many negative unintended consequences, and says it led to the federal courts ordering the California prison system to reduce its population.

The ballot initiative would allow eligible prisoners to be considered for parole once the primary sentence has been served. To achieve this, it would streamline parole rules and allow prison officials to more easily award early release credits for good behavior, participation in educational programs and other efforts at rehabilitation. It would also return to judges the decision on whether a felony defendant as young 14 who should be tried as an adult. The previous law, approved by voters in 2000, allowed the district attorneys to make that decision.

Conceding that the initiative is largely in response to the 2009 federal court order requiring a reduction in the number of prisoners in California's prison system, Brown said it is nonetheless well-balanced and thoughtful. He said the intention was to improve a prison system that had too few chances for rehabilitation. He noted that the initiative would give prisoners an incentive to "do good things" in order to show parole officials that they are ready to return to society.

"It's all about shifting power back to those who are closest to the inmate," said Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersilia. "So many times politicians are not willing to go back and question major things they did in office. He's to be given credit.... He's willing to admit we learned something in California and can now do a course correction."

Brown has $24 million in campaign funds left over from his 2014 reelection bid and other ballot initiatives he could use to support the initiative. But he also has powerful groups of seth penalty supporters and district attorneys opposing his initiative.

The California District Attorneys Association filed a lawsuit to prevent the initiative from appearing on the ballot. The suit claimed it had been improperly added to an already existing, previously vetted initiative dealing with juvenile justice without additional review. On February 24, 2016, California Superior Court Judge Shellyane Chang ruled against Brown. However, Brown appealed to the California Supreme Court and that court issued a temporary stay of the lower court's ruling, allowing Brown to proceed with the collection of the 585,000 voters' signatures require to have the initiative placed on the ballot while the court considers the merits of the case. See: Brown v. Superior Court, Cal., No. S232642. Additional source: Los Angeles Times

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Related legal case

Brown v. Superior Court