SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — More than 40 years after ushering in tough crime laws that led to massive prison overcrowding, Gov. Jerry Brown is spending millions of dollars to try to reform California's criminal justice system. Brown wants to make thousands of nonviolent inmates eligible for early parole and revamp decades-old determinate sentencing laws that he acknowledges came with "unintended consequences."
The fourth-term Democratic governor's push for a state constitutional amendment has set off a power struggle between Brown and the Golden State's district attorneys and law enforcement groups that call making thousands of criminals eligible for parole a threat to public safety and a direct assault on victims' rights.
Through a contentious ballot measure that had to be approved by the California Supreme Court, Brown is asking voters to "stop wasting costly prison space on nonviolent people" and approve Proposition 57 in November.
Though California is renowned for its sweeping beaches, stunning state parks and its predictable and plentiful sunshine, it's also known, along with Texas, for locking up more than 130,000 residents in its 34 state prisons.
Decades of tough-on-crime laws, including determinate sentencing and the three-strikes law, filled California's prisons and burdened the state budget with skyrocketing costs.
Lack of prison space and resources spawned conditions so inhumane that in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California was subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered California to quickly reduce its prison population, which was operating at 137 percent of capacity.
Since retaking office in 2010, Brown has strived to relieve prison overcrowding and regain control over California prisons from federal receivership. He realigned state prisons in 2011, transferring certain felons from state prisons to county jails or rehabilitation programs.
Three years later voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug offenses and other low-level felonies and again opened the valve on prison releases.
These criminal justice reforms quickly dropped prison populations to levels not seen since the 1990s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Critics complain that despite the shrinking prison populations, California's corrections budget continues to rise. California spent 10 percent of its state budget on its prison system in 2015 — $10 billion — and the average cost of incarcerating an inmate for a year has swelled to $64,000.
The 31,000-member prison guards union — the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — and its political action committees wield tremendous political power in the state. The union is not taking a position on the proposition.
Brown said in January that he would do "whatever it takes" to get the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act — now known as Proposition 57 — on the November ballot.
His attempt to cement his legacy in criminal justice reform was quickly tested by state prosecutors.
A group of district attorneys, including Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, sued Brown in state court, claiming that he hijacked a previous measure to circumvent state filing laws. Schubert accused Brown of making last-minute changes to a measure that dealt with juvenile sentencing laws, and not allowing time for public comment.