Calif. High Court OKs Governor’s Parole Plan

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The California Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court’s decision and cleared Gov. Jerry Brown’s comprehensive parole-reform initiative that was opposed by state prosecutors for the November ballot.
     The panel ruled 6-1 that Brown’s last-minute changes to an existing juvenile-sentencing measure were “reasonably germane” to the original theme and that the trial court erred in rejecting the amendments in February.
     The ruling allows Brown’s proposal to go to voters in November if the Secretary of State validates at least 585,000 of the signatures turned in last month. If the court would have ruled against Brown, it would have delayed the contentious parole plan until 2018 at the earliest.
     “The Legislature has granted them substantial leeway to make amendments before the measure is presented to the public for signatures,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority. “The statute permits even sweeping changes, so long as they are reasonably germane to the theme.”
     Brown introduced the sweeping parole reform changes to an existing juvenile sentencing initiative during a press conference in January, claiming that the plan would reduce prison overcrowding by increasing parole consideration for nonviolent inmates.
     The Democratic governor said fixed-term sentencing guidelines he signed into law 40 years ago came with “unintended consequences” and vowed to do “whatever it takes” to put the initiative to voters.
     The California District Attorneys Association quickly sued to stop the initiative, arguing that Brown hijacked an existing initiative in order to speed up the administrative process and that the public didn’t have the allotted time to comment on the changes.
     A Sacramento County Superior Court judge sided with the attorneys in February and halted the measure, ruling that the last-minute changes skirted the state’s election laws and that California Attorney General Kamala Harris should not have cleared the petition for signatures.
     Brown immediately moved to the high court for emergency relief and the panel granted a stay of the lower court’s decision and subsequently allowed proponents to continue gathering signatures.
     The seven-member panel largely disagreed with the district attorneys’ claims that the public didn’t have a chance to vet the proposal, writing that the public comments are actually “for the benefit of proponents, not for the purpose of fostering public discussion.”
     “[The district attorneys’] objection that this procedure does not serve the purpose of transparency fails to acknowledge that the avenue for public comment laid out by the Legislature runs only one way, and for only one round of suggestions,” the majority opinion states.
     The California Supreme Court also shot down the district attorneys’ claims that the last-minute changes prevented opponents from rallying against the proposal. The court again sided with Brown, ruling that the initiative’s opponents have plenty of time to “mount a campaign.”
     “They have ample opportunities to make their case during the lengthy process of signature gathering, ballot qualification and the election itself,” Corrigan wrote in the 25-page opinion.
     The ruling sets a major precedent for California’s newly-reformed initiative process that was amended in 2014 to require proposed initiatives to be placed on a state website for a 30-day public comment period to allow proponents to make late changes.
     The law, signed by Brown, also requires state legislative committees to hold public hearings on measures that have collected a minimum of 25 percent of the required signatures. In addition, the law allows initiatives to be pulled from the ballot if proposals become moot because of laws proposed and approved by the Legislature.
     Justice Ming Chin, in the lone dissenting opinion, said that Brown’s changes strayed too far from the original proposal’s theme. He said the parole reforms have “nothing to do with juveniles” or the original measure.
     “Unfortunately, this case has now set the precedent. Under today’s ruling, future initiative proponents can evade the period of public review in the same way the proponents have done here,” Chin wrote. “They merely need to hijack a vaguely similar measure that was in the process of qualifying.”

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