Forty years after signing strict, fixed-term sentencing standards into law – and more than a decade after panning them as an “abysmal failure” – Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday proposed a ballot measure to make it easier for nonviolent offenders to gain parole.
In a rebuke of criminal enhancements that can dramatically extend prison terms, the measure would let felons convicted of nonviolent offenses seek parole after serving only their base sentences. It would also restructure what Brown called a “crazy quilt” of credits for good behavior, benefiting prisoners who demonstrate evidence of rehabilitation.
The proposal follows a gradual turn at the Capitol from tough-on-crime policies popular in the 20th century.
The initiative language would also undo provisions of Proposition 21, the measure approved by voters in 2000 that allows prosecutors rather than judges to decide when teenagers are tried as adults. Brown will need valid signatures from 585,407 registered voters to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
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Brown, announcing the measure in a conference call with reporters, said the “determinate sentencing” law he signed when he was governor before “had unintended consequences.”
“And one of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves,” he said, “because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around.”
Though his measure would not change sentencing standards, Brown said “it does recognize the virtue of having a certain measure of indeterminacy in the prison system.”
“The driver of individual incentive, recognizing that there are credits to be earned and there’s parole to be attained, is quite a driver,” he said.
The announcement of the initiative was the first specific sign of how Brown plans to involve himself in the November ballot measure campaigns. The fourth-term governor holds a campaign war chest of about $24 million.
Asked if he would finance the initiative, Brown said he will do “whatever it takes to get this done.”
Brown will enjoy a relatively favorable electorate, with high turnout for a presidential election typically benefiting Democratic politicians and their causes.
California voters in recent years have demonstrated a willingness to move away from tough-on-crime policies. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for some drug and property crimes. Two years earlier, voters passed Proposition 36, revising “three strikes” to require that the third strike be a violent or serious felony.
The initiative is likely to face opposition from some conservatives. State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a prepared statement that “weakening the criminal justice system will only increase the victimization of California citizens.”
Brown said the ballot measure’s proposal followed “intense conversation” with law enforcement groups, representatives of which joined him on his conference call.
Brown said he considered including violent offenders in the initiative but that it “met with, I would say, near-universal disinterest” from law enforcement.
“It became a nonstarter,” he said.
Brown, who helped create the state’s “determinate sentencing” system when he was governor before, has said for years that it should be revisited. In a speech to judges in Sacramento in November, Brown said he didn’t foresee the dramatic impact determinate sentencing would have on the growth of California’s prison population. The policy scaled back judicial discretion in prison sentences.
“The more we can introduce some indeterminacy into the punishment, the more we can incentivize better behavior,” he said last year.
By 2003, when he was mayor of Oakland, prisons had become so crowded that Brown told the Little Hoover Commission the reform he signed turned into an “abysmal failure,” giving inmates facing long, fixed terms little incentive to reform themselves.
“The prisons started building up about the time I was leaving,” Brown said in an interview in 2010. “But they didn’t stop. They just kept on going. We see now that the determinate sentence, which I signed, needs substantial revision.”
The state’s prison system became a major issue for Brown when he took office in 2011, with a court order to reduce crowding. Brown that year enacted prison realignment, in which the state shifted responsibility for certain low-level offenders from the prison system to counties.
Last year, Brown vetoed a slate of crime-related bills, including one focused on date rape, complaining in a veto message about a “multiplication and particularization of criminal behavior” that he said would only make California’s Penal Code more complex.
“Over the last several decades, California’s criminal code has grown to more than 5,000 separate provisions, covering almost every conceivable form of human misbehavior,” Brown wrote. “During the same period, our jail and prison populations have exploded.
“Before we keep going down this road, I think we should pause and reflect on how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just and more cost-effective.”