By Christopher Zoukis A proposed ballot measure launched by Calif. Gov. Edmund G. ‘Jerry’ Brown to amend so-called ‘determinate’ sentencing rules would need to gather nearly 600,000 valid signatures from state voters to reach the November ballot. Brown’s proposed ballot initiative, introduced in late January, would let the state’s voters decide on a package of proposed…

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By Christopher Zoukis

In February, the State of California secured yet another extension to the date by which it must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in its state prisons.  Prior to the February 10, 2014 ruling, the deadline for reductions in prison overcrowding was set for April, but in the latest decision, three federal judges gave the state an additional two years to comply.

California’s prison population is second only to Texas.  Between 2000 and 2010 the inmate population was relatively stable, with a 2010 population of 165,062, or 0.44% of the state’s population, an increase of just 1.3% since 2000.  Long-running lawsuits against overcrowding, particularly from inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions, forced a reduction.  In 2010, the prison population fell by 9.4% to 149,569, but overcrowding remains a serious problem.  California state prisons are currently 44% over the listed capacity.

The state’s increasingly harsh sentencing laws are a significant part of the problem, but despite long sentences and often miserable prison conditions, California’s recidivism rate is much higher than the national average.  Roughly 60% of released prisoners are back behind bars within three years, compared to 44% nationally.  Nor has the current strategy resulted in safer communities.  Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice for 2011 show that although rates for some crimes are below the national average (13% lower for burglary, 20% lower for larceny/theft, and 24% lower for forcible rape), for other rates, California significantly exceeded those for the nation as a whole: violent crimes are 6.4% higher, robbery 27% higher, and motor vehicle thefts a whopping 70% higher.  Given the dire state of California’s public finances and the clear failure of the prison system, it shouldn’t require a court order to persuade the state to re-think its strategy.

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By John E. Dannenberg

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown approved four out of every five parole grant decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) for prisoners convicted of murder, sentenced to life with parole. Totaling parole grants for 377 lifers, Brown’s record dwarfs the scanty parole approvals of his predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.

California’s parole process for life-sentenced murderers has been stymied for decades by governors who fear the political repercussions of paroling lifers, based on what happened to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis had permitted a violent prisoner serving a life sentence, Willie Horton, to have a weekend furlough; while on furlough Horton committed additional violent crimes, including armed robbery, assault and rape.

When Governor Dukakis later ran for President in 1988, his rivals produced a TV ad depicting a revolving door that showed him giving furloughs to violent felons. The infamous ad labeled Dukakis a “soft on crime” liberal who allowed dangerous criminals to commit more crimes. He subsequently lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush.

Since then, few politicians have ventured to use their discretion to release prisoners serving life sentences for murder. In California, the first governor to be granted the statutory power to make such decisions was Gray Davis. His statement at the time was that if you killed someone, forget it – you’re not getting out (notwithstanding that state law requires release on parole to “normally” be granted). In his years as governor, Davis arbitrarily overruled every favorable Board parole decision for life-sentenced murderers, save five – equating to a lifer parole rate of a fraction of one percent.

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