Sentencing / Post-Conviction

California governor pushes ballot measure to release nonviolent criminals from prisons earlier

Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown. Frederic Legrand - COMEO /

With California still struggling to meet a 2009 federal court order to end overcrowding in prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown will push for a ballot initiative that would make it easier for nonviolent criminals to get early release, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The proposal would make it easier to award credits toward early release based on good behavior, rehabilitation efforts and participation in prison education programs.

“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 at a news conference, where he was joined by several law enforcement officials and religious leaders.

As governor in 1977, as the tough-on-crime movement gained momentum, Brown had signed the determinate sentencing law that critics say caused prison crowding.

“So many times politicians are not willing to go back and question major things they did in office,” says Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersilia. “He’s to be given credit … He’s willing to admit we learned something in California and can do a course correction.”

Brown will need more than 585,000 voter signatures to get the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, though he likely has enough funding leftover from his successful 2014 re-election campaign and from some earlier efforts in successful ballot measures.

“I think this will effectively open bed space for those who richly deserve to be there,” said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who appeared with the governor at the Wednesday news conference.

The initiative also would let the state parole board consider early release for nonviolent offenders who complete the full sentence for their primary offense, and it would move powers from prosecutors to judges for determining whether alleged felons as young as 14 will be tried in juvenile or adult court—which would overturn a system voters approved in 2000.

Brown’s plan might offend crime victims who expected those responsible to serve certain sentences.

“Now, down the line, they’re told 10 year [sentences] are not really 10 years,” says Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath. “I think this is very, very corrosive to the faith that the public has ultimately in the criminal justice system.”

Brown began the messaging that can help keep his proposal from being lost in an unusually large thicket of ballot measures this year, including one concerning gun violence and possibly competing ones on the death penalty.

“Its essence is to provide an incentive, both reward and punishment,” he said of earning early release. “It will require an act of will.”

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.