California Governor Backs Ballot Measure to Release Some Prisoners Early

Gov. Jerry Brown is putting his weight and likely his campaign war chest behind a November ballot initiative that would allow inmates to get out of prison earlier and require judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to charge juveniles as adults.

By Melody Gutierrez

Gov. Jerry Brown is putting his weight and likely his campaign war chest behind a November ballot initiative that would allow inmates to get out of prison earlier and require judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to charge juveniles as adults.

The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 initiative would roll back parts of Proposition 21, the ballot measure voters approved in 2000 that gave prosecutors the right to try minors as adults. It also would give inmates with nonviolent offenses the chance to seek parole after serving time on their primary, most serious offense.

That would mean that inmates whose sentences were lengthened because of secondary offenses or enhancements -- tougher penalties due to drug, gang or weapons violations -- might not have to serve the extra time.

"It's pretty dramatic," said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor who has studied the state's prison system for decades. "With enhancements, a base term of 4 years can quickly turn into 20 years. In one fell swoop (Brown) is eliminating that."

Brown said that only well-behaved inmates would be considered for early parole. The initiative would let inmates strive for a reduced sentence through a revised credit system for good behavior, education and rehabilitation.

Inmates earn credits

"This says before the add-ons are served, there will be a possibility a person can be considered for parole if their behavior has been exemplary," Brown said in a conference call with media. "It allows credits to be earned and it allows for parole consideration to be given. Those two experiences depend on the inmate making definite steps to change what got them in prison in the first place."

The proposed initiative needs necessary signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

The reason for the changes, Brown said, is to give inmates an incentive to rehabilitate.

"In its essence, it's to provide an incentive, both reward and punishment, because those who misbehave can lose credits they attain," Brown said.

$24 million war chest

Brown's support of the measure is the first indication of what he will do with $24 million in campaign funds he's been sitting on. Brown would not say whether he would use his campaign funds because that would be using government time to discuss campaign spending. He did, however, say he would do "whatever it takes to get this done."

Petersilia said some sort of sentencing reform was anticipated as the state looks for long-term solutions to dealing with prison overcrowding, as required by a three-judge federal court panel.

Brown said the ballot measure would allow prisoners to take control over their lives by giving them the ability to show they are ready to return to society. He called it a partial return to indeterminate sentences, in which prisoners were given broad sentences -- such as five years to life -- and had to show a parole board they were rehabilitated and had a plan for their release.

The governor was joined by faith leaders and law enforcement in his announcement.

L.A. chief's view

"We have a very finite resource in which to deal with crime in California and that is our prison system and our jail system, and we have to effectively use those systems and we do not when we keep the wrong people incarcerated for the wrong length of time, thereby not freeing up space for people who deserve to be there," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who did not take an official position on the measure.

Brown has called for criminal sentencing reform for more than a decade after becoming a critic of the state's determinate sentencing practices, fixed prison terms which he helped create. Determinate sentences give prisoners a set release date, which itself was considered a reform 40 years ago.

During Brown's first stint as governor in 1975, the state's prisons used indeterminate sentencing, which had been a staple of the system for nearly 60 years.

Arbitrary and racist

That system wasn't without its critics, who argued that the parole board's decisions were arbitrary and racist, and that sentences without a release date led to prisoners acting out violently while incarcerated.

"One of the things that created the movement for determinate sentences was there was a distrust that was created by the decisions made at the parole review hearings," said Patrick McGrath, the district attorney in Yuba County and president of the California District Attorneys Association. "In many people's minds there was a wide disparity between who was getting out and when and what prison officials were considering."

Only nonviolent offenders

The Legislature stepped in and passed a bill to create determinate sentences, which Brown signed into law in 1977.

McGrath said returning to indeterminate sentencing could be problematic, even if it applies only to nonviolent offenders.

"The emphasis has been on this not affecting violent offenders, but I think most members of the public would be surprised at what qualifies as a nonviolent offense under the penal code," McGrath said. "Domestic violence, driving under the influence that causes death, residential burglary -- these would be eligible for early release."

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber (Tehama County), said the measure would weaken the criminal justice system and "increase the victimization of California citizens."

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.