Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a ballot measure Wednesday that could let more than 25,000 state prisoners serve shorter sentences and impact how many juvenile offenders are tried as adults.

The initiative, aimed at the November ballot, would help the state lower its inmate population and comply with an ongoing federal order to reduce prison crowding. But Brown said it would also roll back what he called “unintended consequences” of a major sentencing reform he signed nearly three decades ago, when he was first governor.

That measure set out predetermined sentences for each crime, tying the hands of judges and the state’s parole board. Since then, lawmakers and voters have also passed dozens of sentencing enhancements that allowed prosecutors to tack on even more time to those predetermined sentences.

Brown said the lack of flexibility led not only to crowded prisons but also gave inmates no reason to behave well or participate in rehabilitation programs while they are behind bars.

“One of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves, to refrain from gang activity, using narcotics, otherwise misbehaving,” he said. “Nothing that would give them the reward of turning their life around.”

The ballot measure would give the approximately 25,000 nonviolent state prisoners an opportunity for earlier release, by allowing the parole board to consider them for parole after they serve their entire initial sentences, but before they serve time tacked on by sentencing enhancements. 

Additionally, the proposed ballot measure would make a major change to the state’s juvenile justice system, by allowing judges instead of prosecutors to decide whether a minor should be charged as an adult. That would roll back a change enacted by voters in 2000.

Brown said that system is more fair and deliberative, adding that “judges should judge and prosecutors should prosecute.”

The governor was joined by law enforcement leaders on a call announcing the ballot initiative, including San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Dumanis, a former juvenile court judge, praised the ballot measure for its changes to both the juvenile and adult systems.

“Before, inmates got credit for breathing,” she said, adding that prisoners who participate in educational and vocational programs are better equipped to contribute to society when they are paroled.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck
Law enforcement leaders including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck joined Gov. Brown on a call announcing the ballot initiative — though it’s unclear if they’ll endorse the measure. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

While it’s still not clear if the state’s major law enforcement groups will actually endorse the ballot measure, their participation on the call is a huge change from years past, said UC Berkeley criminal justice expert Barry Krisberg.

He has advocated these types of reforms for years, and called the ballot measure’s major provisions a step in the right direction when taken with other criminal justice changes of recent years — some of which have been pushed by Brown.

“You’re seeing law enforcement leadership beginning to understand the value of these kinds of reforms — not all of them but a chunk of them — and the governor being on that side helps this move forward,” he said. 

Faith groups and others have been pushing the governor for these types of changesBut some Republican lawmakers immediately denounced the proposal as a threat to public safety.

Brown has just a few months to collect the signatures necessary to place the measure before voters in November. But with more than $24 million in campaign accounts, it looks like he has the funds to do so.

Author

Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports for KQED's California Politics and Government Desk, covering all things political. Previously, Marisa worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Times. Her expertise includes local and state politics, criminal justice and breaking news. Follow her on Twitter @mlagos 

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