By Bob Egelko

The state Supreme Court made it likely Monday that Californians will vote in November on Gov. Jerry Brown's crime initiative, which would allow prisoners convicted of nonviolent felonies to be considered for early parole.

The California District Attorneys Association sought to keep the measure off the ballot, arguing that Brown had violated the public's right to comment on initiative measures by combining his proposal with one that would require a judicial hearing before defendants as young as 14 could be tried as adults. The authors of the juvenile measure had already completed their public-comment period, required by state law, when they agreed to let Brown take it over and add his parole plan.

In a 6-1 ruling, the court said the two measures were "reasonably germane" to one another and could be submitted as a single initiative, without further public comment.

The ruling allows election officials to count 1 million signatures that backers of the initiative recently submitted. They need 585,407 valid signatures for the proposal to make the November ballot.

Dan Newman, a spokesman for the initiative campaign, said Californians "will now have a chance to improve public safety." By giving these prisoners a chance at parole, he said, the initiative will provide an incentive for them to follow prison rules, educate themselves and "turn their lives around."

Prosecutors will "vigorously oppose this dangerous measure," said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, president-elect of the statewide district attorneys association. He said the ruling, by allowing the two initiatives to merge and circulate without additional public comment, "sets a dangerous precedent for the initiative process."

The measure, if it qualifies, will join a November ballot likely to also include such weighty subjects as the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, gun control, taxes and a ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, in addition to the presidential and U.S. Senate elections.

Initiative's intent

Brown's initiative would reduce the population of the state's prisons -- under federal court order to ease overcrowding and improve health care -- and partially roll back the fixed-term sentencing system that he signed into law in 1977.

Under that system, state laws determine a range of sentences for each crime, judges choose the sentence, and the inmate must serve the prescribed term, with reductions for good behavior. Sentences are often increased by many years for an inmate's previous felony convictions and aggravating circumstances of the crime, including gang membership, infliction of serious injuries and use of a gun.

The new initiative would make inmates eligible for parole after serving their sentence for the crime they committed. It would cover only those convicted of felonies classified as nonviolent, which would disqualify those who used a gun or inflicted serious injuries. Early release would not be guaranteed -- the parole boards, composed mostly of former law enforcement and prison officials, now review the cases of murderers serving life sentences and usually vote to keep them in prison.

The initiative would also repeal a law, approved by voters in 2000, that allowed prosecutors to charge youths aged 14 to 17 in adult court for serious crimes, with potential sentences of up to life in prison. The measure would restore a previous law allowing a juvenile court judge to decide whether the youth should be tried instead as a juvenile, who could be held only until age 23.

Combining measures

The juvenile crime measure was proposed separately in December, but its sponsors agreed in January to let Brown combine it with his felony-parole plan as a single initiative. Under a 2014 state law, sponsors of a proposed ballot measure can add new provisions without requiring an additional 30 days of public comment, but only if the changes are "reasonably germane" to the original proposal.

A Sacramento judge agreed with prosecutors that the two initiative proposals weren't closely related and ordered a further period of public comment, which would have made it virtually impossible to meet the November ballot deadline. But the state's high court said Monday that Brown's measure satisfied the "lenient" standard set by the 2014 law.

"The proponents of an initiative are captains of the ship when it comes to deciding which provisions to take on board," Justice Carol Corrigan said in the majority opinion. She noted that the first version of the juvenile-crime initiative would have made some young adult inmates eligible for parole, and said both measures were "intended to benefit prisoners who have rehabilitated themselves in custody."

In dissent, Justice Ming Chin said Brown's adult-felon proposal had little in common with the juvenile-crime measure and should have required a new period of public comment. He noted that Brown, when he signed the 2014 law, said it was intended to "increase public participation in the initiative process."

Both initiatives "involve the criminal justice system," Chin said, but Brown's measure "has nothing to do with juveniles."

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