Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown’s crime initiative dealt major blow

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom in 2013. In a major setback for Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping prison and parole initiative, a judge on Wednesday ruled the measure was improperly filed, barring the state attorney general from issuing ballot language necessary for supporters to start collecting signatures.
Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom in 2013. In a major setback for Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping prison and parole initiative, a judge on Wednesday ruled the measure was improperly filed, barring the state attorney general from issuing ballot language necessary for supporters to start collecting signatures. Associated Press file

In a major setback for Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping prison and parole initiative, a judge on Wednesday ruled the measure was improperly filed, barring the state attorney general from issuing ballot language necessary for supporters to start collecting signatures.

The initiative, which would make certain nonviolent felons eligible for early parole, was filed last month as an amendment to a measure concerning juvenile justice.

Because the amendment substantially changed the content of the initiative, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne W.L. Chang ruled, Attorney General Kamala Harris should not have accepted it.

Harris, Chang said, “abused her discretion” in accepting the amendments.

Juvenile justice groups joining Brown in the effort said they will immediately appeal, either to the 3rd District Court of Appeal or directly to the California Supreme Court.

If unsuccessful, Brown will not have enough time in the election calendar to refile and circulate the initiative for the November ballot, said James Harrison, a lawyer for the proponents.

The fourth-term Democrat could try again in 2018. But for Brown, who has long sought to ease the effect of fixed-term sentencing standards that he signed into law when he was governor before, the inability to go forward this year could prove damaging. Turnout in 2018 is unlikely to be as favorable to Brown as in November, with higher turnout in presidential elections typically benefiting Democrats and their causes.

Before the ruling, Harris had been scheduled to issue a title and summary for the initiative on Thursday, which would have allowed signature gathering to go forward.

In their effort to block the initiative, the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert argued Brown’s measure constituted a “completely different and new initiative” that should go through its own review process, including public comment.

Chang, who once worked for Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s chief of staff when he was governor before, said the Legislature intended for voters to have an opportunity to comment on a proposed initiative. The timing of Brown’s amendment allowed proponents to short-circuit the normal, 65-day review process.

“With all due respect, stand in line like everybody else,” said Tom Hiltachk, a lawyer for opponents of the initiative.

With all due respect, stand in line like everybody else.

Tom Hiltachk, a lawyer for opponents of the initiative

Brown’s initiative followed a gradual turn in California and across the country against tough-on-crime policies popular in the 20th century. But many conservatives and the prosecutors’ state association oppose the measure, objecting to its overhaul of decades of sentence enhancements in California.

Brown criticized the group’s lawsuit when it was filed this month.

“It’s perplexing why these DAs would deny the people of California their right to vote on this important public safety measure,” the governor said in a statement at the time.

The initiative that served as the platform for Brown’s effort was a little-noticed measure filed in December to undo provisions of a 2000 ballot measure allowing prosecutors rather than judges to decide when to try teenagers as adults.

Brown added to that initiative his proposal to make certain nonviolent felons eligible for early parole and to give the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation authority to award credits for good behavior. Brown and supporters of the initiative said inmates currently have little incentive to rehabilitate themselves while in prison.

Harrison argued in court on Wednesday that the initiatives were not substantially different, with both measures addressing aspects of juvenile and adult incarceration.

But Chang said, “The theme and purpose of the original initiative was reform of the juvenile justice system. The amendment deals with, primarily, reform of the adult justice system.”

The theme and purpose of the original initiative was reform of the juvenile justice system. The amendment deals with, primarily, reform of the adult justice system.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne W.L. Chang

The initiative is the only measure Brown plans to propose this year and was expected to occupy much of his political agenda in the coming months.

Even if the ruling Wednesday is overturned, signature gathering will be delayed. Brown holds a war chest of about $24 million that he could tap to pay for accelerated signature gathering.

Whether there would be enough time to circulate petitions following an appeal, Harrison said, “depends how quickly the court acts.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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