S. E. Williams
Last week Governor Jerry Brown introduced legislation aimed at changing the sentencing guidelines for non violent felony offenders while also mitigating the potential for minors to be tried as adults.
In recent years it has become more and more apparent the Governor Brown running the state today has evolved on the issue of criminal justice.
Brown served as California’s governor from 1976 to 1983. It was during those years (1977) and under his leadership California lunged into ‘Determinate Sentencing’—broadly defined as a set jail or prison sentence that cannot be changed by a parole board or other agency. ‘Determinate Sentencing’ guidelines called for mandatory minimum sentences and enhanced sentences for certain crimes. It mandated strict sentences for the most serious crimes and served as fertile ground for the birth of the infamous ‘’’three strikes” rule. This form of sentencing restricts a judge’s discretion when setting prison terms during sentencing.
For the sixty years previous to 1977, California followed an ‘Indeterminate Sentencing’ process. Under that process those convicted could get a very broad sentence (for example from one year to life). While serving their sentences, those convicted would subsequently appear before a parole board. The board would decide if the felon was sufficiently rehabilitated and thus, eligible for release.
In the years since the 1977 implementation of ‘Determinate Sentencing’ Brown has publicly expressed regrets over how the sentencing process resulted in less discretion by the judiciary, parole boards and other agencies.
Now, nearly forty years since the implementation of ‘Determinate Sentencing’, Brown, with the support of law enforcement and faith leaders, has proposed a ballot initiative that would firstly, require judges, not prosecutors, to determine when a juvenile should be tried as an adult.
Secondly, it would allow non-violent felons to be paroled upon completion of their base sentences without all of the enhancements added over the years. Each type of crime is assigned a base offense level, which is the starting point for determining the seriousness of a particular offense. Currently enhancements can be added to the base offense that often increases the length of a sentence. Those enhancements currently include everything from gang affiliation to fire arm possession, etc. Over the years, such enhancements have added years of additional time to prison sentences.
The proposal would also allow non violent offenders to petition for early release as corrections officials will also have increased flexibility to award credits for good behavior; the completion of rehabilitation programs; or, participation in prison education programs.
The proposed legislation will not change sentencing policy but it will help California maintain fulfillment of the 2009 Federal Order that mandated the state reduce its prison population. It should also help correct a criminal justice system that for years appeared to neglect efforts aimed at rehabilitation.
During his announcement of the proposed legislation Brown stated, “By allowing parole consideration if they [prisoners] do good things they will then have an incentive . . .“
This proposal is in addition to all of the legal and voter approved changes in the previous five years, California is leading the way and breaking progressive ground for the nation on prison reform. If successful the new legislation will impact the lives of thousands of current inmates.
Now the hard work begins. To qualify the initiative for the November ballot, supporters must collect signatures of 586,000 registered voters—the equivalent of eight percent of those who voted in California’s 2014 gubernatorial election.