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Brown Tackles Prison Reform With Ballot Bid

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - California Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday he will do "whatever it takes" to ensure the success of a ballot measure that reforms the state's sentencing laws and encourages the early release of nonviolent felons.

If approved, the measure aims to cut the state's prison population by increasing parole consideration for nonviolent inmates and allowing them to earn credits for good behavior and by completing education courses. The proposal also calls for judges to decide whether to try juveniles as adults instead of prosecutors as is currently the case.

Brown said the amended Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 "flows from intense conversation" with law enforcement agencies and district attorneys, and is likely to be on the November ballot.

"It's well-balanced, it's thoughtful and it's an important step," Brown told reporters in a phone conference.

The Democratic governor mentioned that California's prisons are currently under a court-ordered population limit and that with the possibility of federal judges ordering the release of inmates, the initiative would make sure that rehabilitated inmates get released first.

Brown was joined on the press call by prison officials, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the sentencing reforms will help law enforcement efficiently use resources by encouraging rehabilitation and clearing room for violent offenders.

"This will effectively open up bed space for people that richly deserve to be there rather than ones whose lives we can change," Beck said. "We have a very finite resource and we have to use it effectively."

The proposal is the latest attempt to stem California's notorious prison overcrowding, following a successful ballot measure in 2014 that reduced penalties for nonviolent offenses. Proposition 47 is credited with immediately decreasing prison population as the total incarceration rate fell to a 20-year low of 538 per 100,000 residents just two months after its passage.

California instituted fixed-term sentencing - determinate sentencing- 40 years ago during Brown's first term. Brown has since called the determinate sentencing a "failure" with unintended consequences and said Wednesday his proposal "recognizes the virtue of having a certain measure of indeterminacy in the prison system."

The measure is an opportunity for Brown to try to reverse decades-old laws that critics say contributed to massive prison overcrowding. The ballot measure needs 585,000 voter signatures to join an already crowded ballot in a presidential election year. Brown has an estimated $24 million in campaign funds left from his 2014 reelection drive but wouldn't say Wednesday whether he would use the money on the initiative.

If approved, the initiative would allow corrections officials to give inmates parole credits through good behavior and through prison education programs. Brown said the changes would give inmates an incentive to learn trades and skills in prison and boost their chances for parole .

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said Wednesday the initiative emphasizes public safety and "incentivizes" good behavior. She said she agrees that judges, not prosecutors, should decide whether to try juveniles in adult court.

"I have long felt that it should be left to the judges," Dumanis said. "A judge is in a position to hear all the information and make an informed decision about where this particular person should be placed."

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, disagreed.

"Recent changes in sentencing laws have contributed to the rising crime rate in local communities throughout California," Melendez said in a statement. "The governor's proposal today promises more of the same."

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