By James Poulos.
Convinced California’s prison population still must be lowered, Gov. Jerry Brown has begun to push a ballot initiative that would forgive some felons.
The initiative’s details, first announced in late January, “would amend the fixed-sentence law Brown signed in 1976, to make prisoners found guilty of a non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual crimes eligible for parole,” according to the Huffington Post.”The governor estimated this might make as many as 7,000 inmates eligible to seek parole.”
In addition, HuffPost noted, Brown’s initiative would also call for a “credit system” of “time off for good behavior, to be run by prison officials, which might affect even more inmates than would the changes in parole eligibility.” The mechanics governing that kind of regime would be left to lawmakers or regulators.
Aware of the prospect of law-and-order pushback — at a time when populism has captivated many of his California critics — Brown “enlisted a platoon of law enforcement leaders — including San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis — to join him when he” rolled out the shorter-sentences measure, noted KQED.
“But those individual voices apparently did not portend a ringing endorsement from other prosecutors across the state: On Thursday, the California District Attorneys Association’s 17-member board of directors voted to oppose the initiative, with just one member abstaining,” the station reported. “The CDAA represents the state’s 58 district attorneys and is a political force in Sacramento. The group’s opposition to Brown’s ballot proposal may explain in part why he choose to go to the ballot instead of going through the state Legislature.”
Lining up opposition
Further fulfilling political expectations, prominent Republicans moved to mobilize support against Brown. In a mailing list email, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson slammed the would-be law. “The initiative should be entitled ‘The Dangerous Streets Act: A Retreat to Lenient Sentencing of California’s Violent and Serious Criminals.’ If passed, it will undo the protections that were enacted to safeguard Californians from becoming crime victims in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” wrote Wilson, as Debra Saundersobserved at the San Francisco Chronicle. Saunders continued:
“Like Wilson, Michael Rushford of the tough-on-crime Criminal Justice Legal Foundation sees Brown’s plan as an evisceration of California’s landmark Three Strikes Sentencing Law and the state’s Victims’ Bill of Rights — both successful ballot measures that enhanced penalties for repeat offenders. They believe that realignment and Prop. 47 have led to the release of too many bad guys.”
For Brown, however, the proposed initiative would simply continue to reform what even critics acknowledge has long been a dysfunctional and at times abusive prison system. Already, Brown “has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term,” as the Washington Post observed.
Nevertheless, as the paper reported, Brown has faced a conundrum in following court orders to thin out the state’s incarcerated population: “As many as 90 percent of inmates in 2013 had either a violent or serious felony conviction, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. That left the state with little choice for bringing prisoner counts down.”
Compounding the trouble, cost savings Brown promised for changing course have yet to materialize. “Federal judges required the state to reduce the headcount in the state’s 34 main adult prisons more than officials wished, according to the revised long-term plan Brown’s administration released Wednesday at the insistence of state lawmakers,” the Orange County Register noted. That change, said officials, lead to “a $3 billion annual difference between the promised savings and the $10.5 billion corrections department budget Gov. Jerry Brown proposed earlier this month, in part because the state also chose to boost the number of prison beds available.”
And in the wake of a withering state report on the culture of abuse that persists in the prison system, incoming secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Scott Kernan has vowed to invest in new leadership and diversity training programs for guards and other employees.