IN THE NEWS: Gov. Brown's parole measure can go on November ballot, state Supreme Court rules

“I understand where the governor is coming from, but generally speaking this initiative is going to put career criminals back on the streets.”
— Mike Ramos, District Attorney

Gov. Jerry Brown wants voters to approve a plan designed to reduce the state's prison population. (Associated Press)

by Maura Dolan and Paige St. John

Californians likely will be asked to decide in November whether to expand parole to thousands more inmates in what would be the state’s biggest change in sentencing law in decades.

The proposed reworking of the parole system cleared a key hurdle Monday, when the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that the proponents of a ballot measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown did not violate a state election law. The ruling, a victory for Brown, gives the attorney general wide latitude to accept last-minute, major changes to proposed initiatives.

If enough petition signatures are validated, a measure would be placed on the fall ballot to allow a parole board to consider early release for thousands of inmates not currently eligible for parole -- a step Brown has said is needed to comply with a federal court order to reduce the prison population.

Brown’s proposal is the latest of several recent measures intended to reduce lengthy sentences in the state. In 2011, the state shifted lower-level prison felons to county jails, worsening local overcrowding and forcing widespread local releases but only temporarily reducing the prison population.

A year later, voters passed a measure to limit the tough three-strikes sentencing law.  A third strike must be violent to justify a life sentence.

In 2014, voters adopted a measure that reduced some felonies to misdemeanors. Certain drug possession felonies became misdemeanors, as did petty theft, receiving stolen property and writing bad checks for less than $950. That measure led to the release of 4,000 inmates.

But Brown’s proposal goes further. Nearly four decades after signing a law requiring strict sentences — a move that Brown now laments had “unintended consequences”— he wants voters to permit a possible early release on parole of felons whose primary crime was nonviolent.

The tough-on-crime laws of previous decades, including the one Brown signed, produced severely overcrowded prisons, and the state is under a federal court mandate to bring down the prison population.

To accomplish this, Brown would vastly expand parole opportunities.

Inmates would be eligible for parole after serving only the sentence for their core crime, negating time tacked on for gang membership, a gun or prior offenses.

Inmates would also receive increased credits for good behavior, and a judge, instead of a prosecutor, would decide whether to try someone as young as 14 in juvenile court or adult court.

“By allowing parole consideration if they do good things, they will then have an incentive … to show those who will be judging whether or not they're ready to go back into society,” Brown said in announcing his plan.

The conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has estimated that 42,000 inmates would be eligible for early parole under the initiative.

Under threat of court-ordered mass releases, the state now relies on contracts to hold thousands of inmates in private prisons as far away as Mississippi. But the prison population is once again rising, after reaching a low of 127,272 in February.

A year ago the governor telephoned Mike Ramos, the chief prosecutor for San Bernardino County, telling him: "We've got a problem. Your county is sending too many people to prison."

Ramos said he tried to discourage Brown from launching what would be another major shock wave to local law enforcement agencies.

"I understand where the governor is coming from," Ramos said, "but generally speaking this initiative is going to put career criminals back on the streets."

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