Brown seeks ballot initiative to overhaul paroles

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

Gov. Jerry Brown and a number of church and law enforcement leaders said Wednesday they are launching a November ballot initiative that would ease parole restrictions on nonviolent prison inmates and provide incentives for prisoners to work toward an earlier release and rejoin society.

The Democratic governor, who signed California’s existing determinate sentencing law nearly four decades ago, said the proposed initiative would not change existing sentencing rules. Rather, it uses early paroles as a carrot that can be achieved with positive behavior demonstrated over time.

“This initiative by no means restores the old indeterminate sentence, but it does recognize the virtue of having a certain measure indeterminacy in the system,” the governor said. The initiative applies to those who “have served their primary term,” he added.

An inmate’s early release would “depend on the inmate making definite steps to change what got them into prison in the first place.  The sentencing remains the same…” Brown said.

The governor did not say whether he would tap his $24 million campaign kitty to finance the qualification and campaign of the initiative, but left little doubt that he would push hard for its passage.

“Whatever it takes to get this done will be taken,” the governor said in a conference call with reporters.

“Giving them incentives to at least start the process is really important,” said Deacon Clyde Davis, who joined Brown on the call. “This will draw them in, and eventually they (inmates) will change little by little,” added Davis, who has spent years as a Catholic chaplain in jails and prisons.

The proposal would ease incarceration for nonviolent offenders and overhaul juvenile sentencing by giving greater discretion to judges.

Brown stressed that his plan does not toss out determinate sentencing, although Brown has over the years expressed his unhappiness with that rule.

“It’s a treadmill; it’s a merry-go-round; it’s a scandal,” Brown testified before the Little Hoover Commission in 2003. At the time, Brown, who had left the governorship 20 years earlier, was the mayor of Oakland.

Under determinate sentencing, judges are given little leeway in deciding sentencing on the merits of individual cases. The sentencing rule originally was seen as a way of blocking vastly disparate sentences for the same crimes.

But over time, with the passage of tougher sentencing laws and the addition of new mandatory penalties, determinate sentencing has been partly responsible for sharp increases in California’s prison population and for the construction of new institutions, Brown has said. By one estimate, California’s prison population increased about five-fold between 1982 and 2000.

Brown has called for “indeterminacy” in the state’s sentencing laws.

California has about three dozen prisons, triple the number during Brown’s first term as governor in the 1970s. The prison population currently is about 113,000, the state said, a figure that does not include juvenile prisoners.

Joining Brown and Davis in support were Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and representatives of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

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