Gov. Jerry Brown Is Trying To Reverse A Draconian Sentencing Law He Signed

His proposed ballot initiative would reduce prison time for many nonviolent offenders.
Mike Segar / Reuters

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is asking voters to overturn a strict sentencing law he signed nearly 40 years ago because of its "unintended consequences," including a surge in the prison population.

Brown, in a call with reporters Wednesday, announced a ballot initiative called the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, which he said would likely reduce prison time for many of the 127,000 nonviolent offenders locked in the state's overcrowded correctional facilities.

The initiative, which will appear on the November 2016 ballot if Brown gathers enough signatures, proposes three major changes in how nonviolent criminals are punished in the state. It would require judges -- not prosecutors -- to decide whether juveniles ages 14 and up should be tried as adults; authorize parole consideration for convicts who have served the full sentence for their primary offense; and allow inmates to earn credits toward early release for good behavior, education and rehabilitation.

The proposal would reverse the "determinate sentencing" law that Brown, now in his fourth term as governor, signed during his first term in 1977. That law set strict sentencing guidelines for judges and ended the practice of allowing many convicted felons to appeal to parole boards.

The law had "unintended consequences," Brown conceded Wednesday. Experts and prison reform activists have blamed it for ballooning the state's prison population.

Brown, referring to the initiative's changes in how juveniles would be tried, said, "Judges should judge. Prosecutors should prosecute."

Brown said he considered expanding the initiative to also apply to violent offenders. But that was met with "near-universal disinterest" from law enforcement, he said, so he dropped it.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who joined the call with Brown, spoke favorably of the initiative. He predicted it would clear prison space for inmates who deserve to be imprisoned. Beck added that he won't take an official position on the initiative until the city does.

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