Gov. Brown Tricked Voters on Prop. 57

Veteran California political commentator Dan Walters has this column at CalMatters.  The headline is, “Gov. Brown pushed for softer treatment of violent felons.” The “tricked” allegation comes farther down in the text. Here is the summary:

Fingers of blame are being pointed about the early prison release of a man accused of being one of the shooters in a downtown Sacramento gang shootout. But the politician most responsible is former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown may well be “most responsible,” but that should not let the present governor off the hook. Gov. Newsom has taken powers that Brown left him and adopted measures for the benefit of violent criminals that go considerably beyond what Brown adopted.

It’s an election year and crime has emerged as a major campaign issue, so it’s no wonder that the horrendous shootout between two gang factions in downtown Sacramento that left six people dead has led to much political fingerpointing.

Republicans, who have become virtually powerless in California, quickly pointed the finger of blame at Gov. Gavin Newsom because one of the alleged shooters, Smiley Martin, had served just five years of a 10-year prison term for spousal abuse due to the state’s recently loosened parole standards.

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In response, Newsom’s office has said the state prison system was merely implementing authority to grant more generous “good time” credits to inmates that voters authorized when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016.

“Merely”? Nonsense. They took authority allegedly granted to them on a promise it was only for non-violent criminals and greatly expanded the credits available to violent criminals. That goes all the way up to murderers except for the very worst: those convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances.

Prison authorities had adopted the new rules on an expedited basis without the chance for public input, but after a lawsuit was filed and a judge tentatively ruled against the process, they reversed themselves and have allowed a period for comment.

Nope, the venerable Mr. Walters got this one wrong. They didn’t reverse themselves, and it had nothing to do with the tentative ruling. The prison Secretary milked the temporary “emergency” regulation regime for as long as she could, but when the clock was running out she finally started the comment process needed for permanent regulations.

The politician who should bear the onus for allowing the alleged shooter and other violent criminals to serve only portions of their sentences is former Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote Proposition 57 and more or less tricked voters into believing that it would benefit only felons who committed non-violent crimes.

Tricked for sure. If you read the proponent’s argument and the legislative analyst’s analysis in the voter pamphlet, you would not know that Prop. 57 made possible expanded credits for robbers, rapists, and most murderers. You would likely think just the opposite.

The measure, a constitutional amendment, declares that “any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense” and made it easier for them to reduce the “full term” with more generous credits for good behavior.

However, it did not define or list “non-violent felony offenses.” Instead, Brown’s campaign referred to a section of the Penal Code that listed 23 particularly violent offenses, such as murder. Any crime not on the list would be considered non-violent for purposes of parole.

Indirectly, therefore, dozens of serious crimes would be considered non-violent for parole purposes. They include assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, intimidating or harming a crime victim or witness, resisting arrest that injures a police officer, violent elder or child abuse, arson with injury, human trafficking and several forms of manslaughter.

That’s all true for the new Prop. 57 parole, but it does not have much to do with the credits issue. The credits are in a separate subsection not limited to “non-violent” felons.

So what’s really the scoop with the credits? State statutes limit most violent felons to 15% max on credits. Murderers are banned from credits altogether, as are the worst sex criminals. Brown and Newsom both contend that Prop. 57 authorizes them to issue credits without regard to statutory limits. Yet Brown only went as far as 20% credits for the violent, above the statutory cap but not too far above. Newsom blew the cap off and authorized 33.3% credits, more than double the statutory amount.

Those who commit crimes that are, in fact, violent, but not on the narrowed list (which was created for an entirely different purpose) can get 50% off just for not breaking prison rules and a whopping 66.6% off just for being assigned to minimum custody. They can get even more for participating in “rehabilitation” programs that the State Auditor says have not been shown to do any good. See this report at pages 13-14.

I disagree with the honorable Governor that article I, section 32 of the California Constitution anoints his Corrections Secretary as an absolute monarch on the subject of credits with the power to unilaterally repeal statutes. The case of CJLF v. CDCR is pending in Sacramento Superior Court. Stay tuned.

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