Brown: More carrot, less stick

An inmate gestures through the bars of his prison cell. (Photo: Sakhorn, Shutterstock)

Gov. Jerry Brown has a lot riding on the November ballot.

Voters will decide on his Proposition 57, which Brown says would let nonviolent inmates become eligible for parole sooner, create “good behavior” credits for state prisoners and let judges decide whether to try a juvenile as an adult. With California’s prisons crowded and facing a court-imposed population cap, and thousands of inmates housed outside the state, Brown says his measure makes sense.

“Our resources as a state are better spent investing in schools, health care, and job training than mass incarceration.” — LaPhonza Butler

“This is a very positive possible improvement if the voters embrace it because it will allow individuals to take some – take real control of their lives,” Brown, a Democrat, said when he unveiled the proposal earlier this year. “It will allow judges to take back their power of judging,” an apparent reference to a provision that allows judges — not prosecutors — to decide whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult.

The initiative “will help reduce recidivism and make for a much safer community, other than this rather mechanical system where the term is very rigid and there’s no opportunity to evaluate the behavior over many, many years in the prison,” added Brown, who has grappled with prison sentencing issues for much of his political career.

But others disagree, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican viewed by the GOP as a potential contender for statewide office. The California District Attorneys Association, which represents prosecutors statewide, and the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs also are opposed, among others.

Faulconer said he supported inmate rehabilitation, “but instead of rehabilitating criminals, we believe it will re- victimize Californians who will see their attackers released from prison,” the mayor said at a San Diego news conference.

“While we’ll be out-spent by Governor Brown, we’re confident we will get the message out.” — Jennifer Jacobs.

Meanwhile, the Chief Probation Officers of California, the California Democratic Party, and the Service Employees International Union support Proposition 57.

“Our resources as a state are better spent investing in schools, health care, and job training than mass incarceration,” SEIU California President Laphonza Butler said in a recent statement. “Our communities have paid too heavy a price for these outdated, unsustainable, and inhumane policies. It’s time to re-evaluate them and get smarter on crime.”

Brown’s own ballot measure committee has contributed about $4.14 million to the campaign backing Proposition 57, Californians for Public Safety and Rehabilitation. The pro-Proposition 57 committee has received a total of $6.94 million in contributions, including $1.12 million from the California Democratic Party.

The “No on Proposition 57” campaign is just starting, spokesperson Jennifer Jacobs said, but “gaining a lot of support every day.”

“While we’ll be out-spent by Governor Brown,” Jacobs said, “we’re confident we will get the message out.”

 “I’m just calling the governor and his cronies on their BS,” said Marc Klaas, the president of the KlaasKids Foundation

Opponents cite several laws, including voter-approved statutes, that conflict with Proposition 57. Those range from the so-called Victim’s Bill of Rights to enhancing sentences on human traffickers. According to the CDAA, some offenders who would become eligible sooner for parole if the initiative passed were convicted of crimes like assault with a deadly weapon, rape of an unconscious or intoxicated victim, or involuntary manslaughter.

“I’m just calling the governor and his cronies on their BS,” said Marc Klaas, the president of the KlaasKids Foundation. “They’re trying to pull one over on the public,” said Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped at a slumber party in 1993 and murdered. The case received intense nationwide attention.

Unlike voter-approved Proposition 47 of 2014, which lowered some crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor, Proposition 57 does not change offenders’ sentences. It allows for nonviolent offenders to become eligible for parole after serving their primary sentence, instead of waiting until enhancements and additional crimes are calculated.

This is how the proposition interferes with previous acts, such as Proposition 8 of 1982, which permits an enhancement if they have prior convictions, or the 10-20-Life law, which imposed mandatory sentence enhancements for the use of a gun.

Proposition 57 also requires the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to create credits to be awarded for good behavior and for approved rehabilitative or educational achievement.

Proposition 57, however, does not define “nonviolent.”

“Yes, bad people are going to continue to do bad things,” said Mark Bonini, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. “But let’s provide them educational and rehabilitation programs that work while they’re with us so they’ll return to communities better.”

By letting offenders become eligible for parole sooner, Bonini said, “It adds indeterminate back into a determinate sentence.”

Proposition 57, however, does not define “nonviolent.”

“Nothing is perfect and there are clearly some issues and language that need to be addressed,” San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said in a written statement. Dumanis joined Gov. Brown in January to support the initiative.

She said she would use her “seat at the table” to address law enforcement’s concerns and that she met with the Brown’s corrections secretary to talk about “who would be eligible for parole consideration and what criteria would be used to determine if parole is appropriate.”

“It’s taking progress that’s been made since the 1980s and all but eliminates it,” Klaas said. “I think this is just crazy, dangerous stuff.”

Proposition 57 opponents have expressed concern that assigning credits would roll back sentences. Victims’ rights advocates at a press conference explained how these parole hearings “re-victimize” the victims, causing them to re-live what happened to them at each parole hearing.

“He [Brown] knows the voters will not support an initiative when they learn the truth; that it is not limited to ‘non-violent offenders,’” ALADS President George Hofstetter said on the organization’s blog, “but instead allows early release of sex offenders and others who have committed violent offenses.”

But Bonini said if California doesn’t pass some sort of reform to keep its prison population under the federally-mandated 137.5% capacity, judges could send in a panel to start releasing prisoners.

He would prefer to have professionals – the parole boards – decide if someone should be released.

“Arbitrary release is never good,” Bonini said.

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