The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) and Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert are asking state Attorney General Kamala Harris to hold off on issuing a title and summary to the criminal sentencing reform ballot measure Gov. Jerry Brown announced recently.
In a filing with Superior Court in Sacramento, the CDAA claims Brown “cut in line” ahead of five other initiatives by taking a ballot measure filed Dec. 22, 2015 and basically doing a “gut-and-amend” with a “complete rewrite.” That, they say, circumvented the public input process, leaving the legislative analyst and the attorney general inadequate time to review and assess the measure.
In a written statement from his office, Brown said, “It’s perplexing why these DA’s would deny the people of California their right to vote on this important public safety measure.”
The court is closed until Tuesday.
This measure gives Brown an opportunity few politicians ever get: To reach back and fix the unintended consequences of a law he signed nearly 40 years earlier.
When Brown signed the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Law in 1976, he thought he was correcting a bias in the parole board, with some inmates being kept in prison a lot longer than others.
“People were alleging racial disparities,” Brown said in an interview Thursday. “I tried to put more certainty into the process. I thought clarity and certainty of prison time would operate as a deterrent.”
Brown calls the law he signed “relatively modest,” but that was just the beginning.
The next four governors added longer sentences for specific crimes and circumstances, Brown said. “There are now 400 separate enhancements that can add up to 25 years, each one of them, and now you have over 5,000 separate criminal provisions. This is unheard of, when you compare (it with) the Ten Commandments, which have stayed at 10 for 2,700 years!”
All of it resulted in an explosion of California’s prison population, with the burden falling disproportionately on the poor, African-Americans and Latinos, Brown said.
“This is kind of a one-note system now,” Brown said. “Time in the cell, time in the cell. What we need is a more sophisticated system … with restorative justice, drug treatment” and more.
The governor called the handiwork of legislators, past governors and the voters a “motorized legislative rampage,” culminating with the passage of Proposition 21 in 2000, which Brown says, was sold by Gov. Pete Wilson and prosecutors as an “anti-gang” measure. It gave prosecutors the power to charge juveniles accused of committing murder and other serious felonies the ability to try them as adults.
Brown is now promoting a fall ballot measure — The Justice and Rehabilitation Act — to put that power back in the hands of judges.
“Because the job of a prosecutor is to prosecute, not judge,” said the governor. “The job of a judge is to judge and whether someone 14, 15, 16, 17 should be tried in the juvenile court system or transferred to the adult court is primarily a judicial question. Let the judges decide. If you keep that separation of powers, you keep faith with the American tradition.”
Brown’s ballot measure also lets nonviolent inmates earn credit for good behavior. It would relax mandatory sentencing laws and give prisoners who “better themselves” behind bars the chance to get parole after they’ve served their primary sentence. Drawing on his Jesuit training, Brown promotes the idea of forgiveness and redemption.
Brown called the current penal code “a giant phone book, an overreach with very minute prescriptions, and sections and subsections and subsections of subsections referring back to other subsections.’
“And nobody knows what the hell is going on,” he said, “except a few deputy DA’s.”
If Brown collects the 585,000 signatures needed to place this measure on the ballot, and voters approve, it would be the latest and perhaps most sweeping U-turn in criminal justice policy under this governor.
Already, law enforcement groups, led by the California District Attorneys Association, are signaling their opposition to Brown’s measure. “It still has to qualify,” said Sean Hoffman, who lobbies on behalf of the association. “So at this point, the extent of our opposition remains to be seen. There are a lot of unknowns.”
Whatever ultimately happens with Brown’s ballot measure, California is well on its way to reversing many of the harshest anti-crime provisions of the past four decades.