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.
While a Sacramento County Superior Court judge sided with the district attorneys and temporarily halted the ballot measure, the California Supreme Court ultimately sided with Brown and allowed the proponents to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Proposition 57 allows parole consideration for people with nonviolent convictions, gives corrections officials the power to grant inmates credits for good behavior and requires judges, instead of prosecutors, to decide whether a minor should be tried as an adult.
Brown calls Proposition 57 as a “well-balanced” measure that saves taxpayer dollars and helps California down the path toward regaining full control over its troubled prison system.
“It’s become obvious for some time that we need to take matters into our own hands,” said Dan Newman, spokesman for the Proposition 57 campaign. “If we don’t come up with a proactive solution then we risk having the federal courts mandate the arbitrary release of prisoners, which is in nobody’s best interest.”
Newman said that Proposition 57 will not allow the sudden release of thousands of inmates, and that authority over early releases remains with the state’s parole board.
California’s parole board consists of 12 full-time commissioners appointed by the governor and a group of deputy commissioners.
Opponents have attacked Proposition 57 with a series of advertisements portraying a flood of recently released inmates into California neighborhoods. The “meet your new neighbor” cards warn Californians that if Proposition 57 is approved, stranglers, rapists and child molesters could be “coming soon!”
Schubert and more than 50 California district attorneys have aligned against the measure, calling it poorly written and a danger to public safety. Schubert says perpetrators of violent crimes such as rape of the unconscious, assault with a deadly weapon and domestic violence could theoretically be paroled under Proposition 57.
“The claim that they’re only going to release nonviolent felons is deceitful,” Schubert said. “It’s disgraceful to victims because they will no longer have any assurance as to how much time their offender will be incarcerated.”
Laurie Kubicek, criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, agrees that the measure’s ambiguous language could make certain rape and other sex crimes parole-eligible. She says Proposition 57 does not explicitly mention what crimes will be considered nonviolent. Turning to the state penal code for clarification, Kubicek said: “If I look at that exhaustive list of what’s violent, then anything that’s not on that list is nonviolent.”
Kubicek studied California’s three-strikes law, penal code section 667.5 (c), and concluded that some voters may be “surprised” at what could be considered nonviolent under Proposition 57.
“If I were to walk you through what’s not considered violent under Proposition 57, it would sort of blow your mind,” Kubicek said. “We have a bunch of sex crimes that are not covered as violent offenses that are absolutely going to be early-parolable offenses if this passes.”
The Proposition 57 campaign calls the opponents’ ads “disingenuous” and says that most violent sex crimes are automatically excluded from parole consideration because of a federal court order.
“I believe the opponents know that,” Newman said, citing the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision on California’s prison overcrowding.
Kubicek rejected Newman’s argument, after studying the language of the proposition.
“Unless you specify in this language that you want to exempt Megan’s Law registrants or certain sex offenders, it is not by design done just because there is an existing federal court order that’s in another context,” she said.
As in most California political skirmishes, money will play a major role in Proposition 57’s fate at the ballot box. Brown’s deep war chest and the Yes on 57 committee have contributed nearly $8 million in support of the measure while the opponents have raised just $242,000.
Proposition 57 backers include billionaire environmentalist and rumored 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Steyer, the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Democratic Party and a host of retired state judges. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have also endorsed Brown’s measure.
Opponents of the criminal justice reform consist of mostly public servants, mainly district attorneys and law enforcement groups. The California Assembly Republican Caucus also opposes Proposition 57, as does the California Police Chiefs Association.
Schubert acknowledged that the opposition faces an uphill battle against Proposition 57, one of 17 measures on the statewide ballot.
“Those of us on the No side are public servants; we’re not politicians,” Schubert said of the disparity in fundraising. “It’s like David and Goliath and you’ve got a governor that has a war chest of $25 million or whatever it is, but we’re going to fight the fight.”
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