Tuesday, June 7, 2016
S.C. Sides With Brown on Prison Reform Ballot Initiative
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Gov. Jerry Brown did not illegally gut an existing ballot initiative to try to get his plan to reduce the state’s prison population before voters in November, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 6-1 decision all but guarantees that voters will have a chance to weigh in this year on Brown’s changes increasing sentencing credits for adult inmates and allowing earlier parole for non-violent felons. The proposals give Brown a chance to ease a tough sentencing law he enacted during his first term in office in the 1970s that he has since called a failure and add his stamp to the growing national movement for prison reform.
The court said Brown’s changes were consistent with a 2014 law permitting initiative proponents to make “reasonably germane” amendments and mandating a 30-day public comment period for initiative proposals.
“There is no question that the changes the proponents made to this initiative measure were, in certain respects, quite extensive,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority. “However, that is their right, so long as the changes are reasonably germane to the original theme, purpose, or subject.”
Brown in May submitted nearly double the number of signatures he needed to qualify his measure for the November ballot, though elections officials still have to sign off on the validity of the signatures. They reported as of yesterday that in the six counties where signatures have been verified, more than 71 percent are valid, which would give proponents a substantial cushion if the results hold.
Brown has argued that changes are needed to help keep the inmate population below the level required by federal judges, and that it was too late to start over and still collect the signatures needed for a ballot measure this year. The measure would increase sentencing credits for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs and allow non-violent felons to seek parole after they have completed their base sentences, without enhancements for things such as gang involvement or firearms possession that can add years to a prison term.
The changes would mitigate the Determinate Sentencing Law Brown signed during his first term.
“(Californians) will now have a chance to improve public safety by voting to provide incentives so that more people follow the rules, educate themselves, and turn their lives around,” Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown and other initiative supporters, said in an email.
The California District Attorneys Association sued to block the initiative, accusing the governor of completely rewriting the original juvenile justice measure to sidestep the normal initiative process and failing to give the public a chance to comment on the changes. Allowing Brown’s changes would encourage other initiative proponents to pull a similar bait-and-switch, it argued.
A Sacramento Superior Court judge agreed, and in February blocked Attorney General Kamala Harris from issuing a title and summary for the measure. But the high court stayed the ruling, and yesterday overturned it.
High Court Ruling
Corrigan said the attorney general acted within her discretion in finding the amendments reasonably germane, and rejected the contention that the extensive nature of the changes violated the public’s right to comment on the measure.
The legislative history of Elections Code §9002, Corrigan said, shows that lawmakers “did not establish a public forum for comments or provide a broadly transparent amendment process,” but instead intended the comment process as an opportunity for proponents to consider and make changes “without any limitation as to their substance.” Brown’s amendments came after the 30-day public comment period.
Steve Wagstaffe, district attorney for San Mateo County and president-elect of the CDAA, said:
“We are disappointed in the decision by the Supreme Court and continue to believe this sets a dangerous precedent for the initiative process for the future.” Wagstaffe said district attorneys would continue to fight what he called Brown’s “dangerous” measure, which they say would increase crime and undermine laws designed to protect crime victims’ rights.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ming Chin said Brown’s changes had nothing to do with the original measure’s focus on juveniles, and the majority was shortchanging the public.
“Under today’s ruling, future initiative proponents can evade the period of public review in the same way the proponents have done here,” he said. “They merely need to hijack a vaguely similar measure that was in the process of qualifying.”
The case is Brown v. Superior Court (California District Attorneys Association), 16 S.O.S. 2759.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company