Editorials

Prop. 57 would fix a mistake, help rehabilitate felons

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57 would reduce prison time for certain felons, saving money and offering a shot at redemption to some inmates.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57 would reduce prison time for certain felons, saving money and offering a shot at redemption to some inmates. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Hoping to fix a mistake he believes he made 40 years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown has turned to the politically unpopular task of reducing prison terms for certain felons.

As governor the first time, Brown signed legislation creating determinate prison terms for most crimes, rather the old system by which felons received indeterminate sentences of from a few years to life behind bars.

Now, nearing the end of his career in elective office, Brown has put $5 million-plus of his campaign money behind Proposition 57. The initiative, which would create a state constitutional amendment, would take a small step back to indeterminate sentences for certain inmates.

In part, Brown is trying to comply with a federal court order that California ease prison crowding. But through Proposition 57, the governor also is keeping true to his belief that people can rehabilitate themselves. We hold that view as well and recommend a yes vote.

Unlike many initiatives, Proposition 57 will line no one’s pockets. It is not a broad overhaul of the criminal sentencing, nor is is it a get-out-of-prison-free card for felons.

People who commit violent crimes, as defined by the Penal Code, still would do their time. But those who commit what are known as serious felonies could reduce their terms by following prison rules, not affiliating with gangs, avoiding drugs, and gaining education and job skills.

Most felons will get out of prison. Better that they earn their freedom by bettering themselves.

Serious felons do commit some awful crimes. But even now, they don’t stay locked up forever. They serve, on average, about two years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates. Under Proposition 57, they would serve about a year and a half before becoming eligible.

Their release would not be automatic. To gain parole, prisoners would plead their cases before a parole board, which in turn would answer to the governor.

The measure also would reverse Proposition 21 of 2000, an initiative promoted by former Gov. Pete Wilson that gave prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to charge juvenile offenders as adults.

Our predecessors on this editorial board viewed Proposition 21 as harsh and misguided. We agree. Under Brown’s proposal, judges, who are neutral arbiters, would gain greater discretion over juvenile offenders.

When Brown was governor the first time, California had 11 prisons. Because of ever-longer sentences, the number of inmates soared, and the incarceration rate in California’s 33 prisons hit record highs in the mid-2000s.

Facing federal court pressure to reduce crowding, the Legislature at Brown’s urging approved a significant criminal justice overhaul in 2011. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced the prison population.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board supported the 2011 legislation but opposed Proposition 47. Unlike Proposition 47, which ran thousands of words and rewrote complex criminal law without adequate vetting, Proposition 57 would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop detailed regulations, with oversight from the governor and Legislature.

Under Proposition 57, inmates would gain greater incentive to better themselves in prison, knowing they could reduce their time behind bars, and corrections officials and future governors would gain important authority to manage inmates.

The timing of Proposition 57 might not be ideal. Crime has ticked up, and courts and law enforcement still are adjusting to recent changes in the criminal justice system.

Implicit in Proposition 57 is that rehabilitation happens. Yes, there are risks. Future governors might scrimp on funding for rehabilitative programs. Parole authorities might grant early release to a miscreant who goes on to commit a terrible crime. But with or without this initiative, most felons will get out of prison. Better that they earn their freedom by bettering themselves.

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