Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at Stanford University on Tuesday. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

John Myers
January 27, 2016

Almost four decades after he signed a law mandating strict sentences for the most serious crimes, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday moved to ease its effect, proposing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses be given a chance at early release.

“Let’s take the basic structure of our criminal law and say, when you’ve served fully the primary sentence, you can be considered for parole,” Brown said in announcing a November ballot initiative to streamline the rules — one he estimated could affect thousands of current inmates.

Rather than change sentencing policy, the proposal would allow corrections officials to more easily award credits toward early release based on an inmate’s good behavior, efforts to rehabilitate or participation in prison education programs.

“It’s well-balanced,” Brown said. “It’s thoughtful.”

The effort is largely in response to the lingering effects of a 2009 federal order for California to reduce its prison population, Brown said. But he made clear that it also is meant to improve a criminal justice system that offers too few chances at rehabilitation.

“By allowing parole consideration if they do good things,” the governor said of some inmates, “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 had been hinting for months that he was considering a key change in criminal justice policy, and consulted with a number of academics and inmate advocates on how to proceed.

He was joined Wednesday by a handful of prominent law enforcement and religious leaders.

While it was unclear whether they were ready to fully embrace each detail of the measure, they praised Brown’s focus on weeding out those serving time for nonviolent offenses.

“I think this will effectively open bed space for those who richly deserve to be there,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said.

The initiative also would authorize the state parole board to consider early release for nonviolent inmates who complete a full sentence for their primary offense and it would require a judge to decide whether felons as young as 14 should be tried in juvenile or adult court.

That final element of the initiative would undo a system approved by voters in 2000 that handed that power to prosecutors.

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