The California Supreme Court on Monday cleared the wayfor voters in the state to decide this November to allow the early release of thousands of inmates serving time for nonviolent felonies in the state’s overcrowded prisons.
Gov. Jerry Brown (D) proposed the ballot measure, which would overhaul the parole eligibility requirements and allow early release for inmates whose primary conviction is nonviolent, earlier this year as part of another ballot measure on juvenile justice. It would essentially undo most of the state’s sentencing requirements including the Three Strikes law and allow early release for inmates “who turn their lives around,” he said.
But prosecutors from the California District Attorneys Association took the move to court, claiming that the additional of the parole ballot measure to the unrelated criminal justice ballot measure was unlawful.
On Monday, the state’s highest court ruled that officials did not break California election law when they added the parole measure to the November ballot. The initiative will now qualify for the ballot if supporters gather at least 585,407 voter signatures and have them certified before the end of the month, a likely step given that Brown is expected to use$24 million in leftover campaign cash to ensure it gets to voters.The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that California must reduce overcrowding in its prisons to 137.5 percent of its “design capacity” within two years. At the time, the state prison system was operating at roughly 180 percent of design capacity — or about 34,000 inmates more than the limit, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. The deadline was later extended to this year, and in January, the population fell below the court-mandated cap for the first time ever.
A January report put the state prison population at a modern low of 113,463, a more than 4,000 drop from the previous year. State officials were able to achieve the reduction through the use of private prisons both in and out of California, enforcement of court orders to expand parole and early release programs, and passage of Proposition 47, making felony drug possession a misdemeanor, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Proposition 47, which was approved by almost 60 percent of California voters in November 2014, reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and required misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property, and other minor crimes. The passage of the ballot measure did not automatically release any inmates from state prison, but permitted them to petition the court for a resentencing. Although law enforcement officials have blamed rising crime on Prop. 47, a recent study reported that the 4,454 prisoners released under the measure as of last November were not to blame.
Brown’s ballot measure proposal would allow the population to be reduced further through an even greater expansion of the parole and early release programs. Under the proposal, the parole eligibility rules would be overhauled and inmates would be entitled to early release if they enroll in prison education programs or find other ways to earn enough good behavior credits.
The governor has attempted to appeal for signatures on the ballot measure by invoking the threat of the forced early release of thousands of inmates. In an email this March, he said that “even after significant improvements, the state does not have a durable plan to deal with prison overcrowding” and faces the prospect of a forced release.
Prosecutors remain critical, claiming that it would give them less power in negotiating plea bargains. They challenged the move in court, and won in February when a court ruled that the addition of the ballot measure was unconstitutional.
The juvenile justice portion of the ballot measure would also take power out of prosecutors’ hands and would allow judges, rather than prosecutors, to decide whether juveniles as young as 14 should be tried as adults. Also on the ballot in California this November will be measures allowing voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana, eliminate the death penalty, and boost the minimum wage.
Author: Kira Lerner
Source: This Progress