In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law ending an era in which California prison inmates received open-ended sentences, earning their release by convincing corrections officials that they had reformed their lives.
The action shifted the state to definite sentences that let inmates know exactly when they’d go free.
This fall, the Democratic governor is asking voters to reverse course, undoing some of the very prison reforms he championed 40 years ago.
Proposition 57 would restore some flexibility to sentencing by making more inmates eligible for early release through parole. It also would deny district attorneys the choice of when to prosecute teenagers as adults, instead handing that responsibility to judges.
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“All of us learn. I’ve learned in 40 years. I think prisoners can learn,” he said. The initiative “orients the prison toward rehabilitation, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Senate Bill 42, the law Brown signed in his first term as governor, was meant to help them prepare to re-enter society, but Brown now says that the law eliminated incentives that once gave inmates a reason to work on improving themselves.
Brown’s ballot measure is facing strong opposition from many sheriffs, district attorneys and other law enforcement organizations. They argue with eye-catching advertisements that Prop. 57 would endanger communities by letting thousands of violent criminals receive early parole every year.
Brown recently visited The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, where he spoke for about an hour on why he’s staking $5 million of his own campaign money on an initiative that would turn back a law he once signed. Here are excerpts from his remarks.
On today’s complicated prison sentences: “I think I know more than most if not more than everybody, the totality of it. But even I didn’t realize when I got to be governor reviewing these lifer cases how complicated criminal law has become.
We have 400 ways of taking a sentence and making it longer.
Gov. Jerry Brown
You look at people getting a life sentence, the add-ons for say, guns, has changed so many times. It depends on what year the crime was. What was the enhancement for using a gun? Did the judge stay it or not? Is it five years, 10 years, 25 years?
It’s all over the lot, and that relates to the fact that there are 400 enhancements. That’s why you face hundreds of years, whereas before, life was the longest. We have 400 ways of taking a sentence and making it longer.”
On rising prison costs:“(Before the law changed), sentences were a lot shorter. The recidivism rate was half and the percentage of the general fund (spent on incarceration) was somewhere between 2 and 3 percent.
Under Schwarzenegger, it got to over 11. Now it’s down around 9, a little more than 9 percent. Let’s call it 3 percent vs. 9 percent. That’s 6 percent. Six percent of $120 billion (the state’s general fund) is $7.2 billion. That is the cost going forward of the way we see the world now.’
129,045 Number of inmates in California prisons
On critics’ claims that Proposition 57 will release hardened criminals:“Eligibility (for parole) is the key word. You have to have discretion and independent judgment. That means you can say yes (to parole), or you can say no.
The propaganda of the no side is you’re only saying yes until you say no, which has never happened in the history of the parole business, and hasn’t happened now. Most paroles are denied.”
The Legislature is the new parole board in effect. They write the laws.
Gov. Jerry Brown
Lawmakers as the new parole board:“A horrible crime happens, and the name of the person becomes the name of the bill. We get not hundreds but thousands (of new crimes). We’re getting not only new crimes, or new versions of crimes, but we’re getting enhancements for a lot of those crimes. It can really stack.
You have the discretion of the parole board now shifting to the prosecutor and the Legislature. The Legislature is the new parole board in effect. They write the laws.
That’s why the prison population is up 500 percent. That’s why we’re spending $7 billion more than we would have had we had the same rules in place.”
“The point of the no side is that the law is sacred and the victims have a right to the full sentence. Now you talk about the Ten Commandments. There are only 10 since Moses got them at Mount Sinai. I would have more sympathy to ascribe such sacred characters of law (to the Ten Commandments).
But when the goalposts are moved all the time and you’re moved around because of the interaction of good time (credit) and the enhancements that go up and up and up, then I say you can’t take what the sentence was at the time of sentencing and say that it is immutable, that no one can ever look at it.
What we’re saying is a group of people down the road should be able to see, has there been any redemption here?”
Facts are not frozen in one year. The facts change as people encounter their lives over a year, five years, 15 years, and those new facts on the ground ought to count for something.
Gov. Jerry Brown
Incentives for self-improvement:“I never thought if you make (a prison sentence) certain, then that would then mean you’re sitting in prison, you know exactly when you’re going to get out, and there’s not an incentive to try to take classes, try to improve yourself, put skin in the game, don’t use the dope.
Now prisons are full of gangs, they’re full of danger, they’re full of drugs and they’re full of people bending the rules. If you want to be obedient to that law, you have to have a lot of intestinal fortitude. About the only thing we can give you – we can’t give you very much – we can give you a little good time (credit). But under the initiative, you’ve got to earn your way out.
Most of the people this initiative (addresses) will get out anyway. I assert that if they earn their way out by positive behavioral change, by education, by drug treatment, mental health, cognitive therapy – all sorts of things we will develop – they’ll be better.
The people will only become engaged once they’re going to get parole in dealing with their issues. I think it’s really important. It’s human. It’s kind of fundamental to our whole Western civilization of hope and redemption. Facts are not frozen in one year. The facts change as people encounter their lives over a year, five years, 15 years, and those new facts on the ground ought to count for something.”