Gov. Jerry Brown says the law he signed nearly four decades ago setting fixed terms for felonies had “unintended consequences,” and he’s sponsoring a November ballot measure that would, in effect, repeal it.
“Let’s take the basic structure of our criminal law and say, when you’ve served fully the primary sentence, you can be considered for parole,” Brown said as he launched what became Proposition 57.
The measure would allow those “convicted of a nonviolent felony offense (to be) eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.”
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It also would allow prison officials to give nonviolent felons credit for good behavior, shaving more time off their sentences.
“It’s well-balanced,” Brown said. “It’s thoughtful.”
As the measure made its way to the ballot, however, the definition of a “nonviolent felony offense” became a bone of contention, particularly with the California District Attorneys Association.
Although the measure does not define nonviolent crime, Brown’s campaign confirmed that it would apply to any felony not specifically listed in Penal Code Section 667.5.
Thus, it could benefit felons convicted of what most people would consider to be violent offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, intimidating a crime victim or witness, resisting arrest that injures a police officer, violent elder or child abuse, arson with injury, human trafficking, and several forms of manslaughter and rape.
The forms of rape not considered violent under Brown’s measure include the rape of an unconscious person and that of an unconscious spouse. And therein lies a burgeoning political conflict.
As Brown’s measure was being cleared for the ballot by a Supreme Court decision in June, former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was receiving a six-month jail term for three counts of sexual assault of an intoxicated and unconscious young woman.
Turner faced as many as 14 years in prison, and the light sentence created a political firestorm, including demands that the sentencing judge be recalled.
A bill was immediately introduced to prohibit probation for the crimes for which Turner was convicted. And last week, another measure surfaced as a rewrite – gut-and-amend, as it’s known – of a pending bill.
The new measure, Assembly Bill 29, appears to be a direct challenge to Brown’s ballot measure. It would compel anyone convicted of raping an unconscious person or spouse – crimes now considered “nonviolent” under Proposition 57 – to serve a full sentence with no time off for good behavior.
AB 29 is being carried by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, for a bipartisan group of female legislators.
The outrage about Turner’s light sentence is a powerful propellant for AB 29 and a legislator would vote against it at his or her political peril. But what would Brown do?
Would he sign the bill and, in effect, undermine his own ballot measure before it even faces voters, or would he veto it and, in effect, imply that raping an unconscious woman is not a violent crime?