Governor Brown, Time to Debate Prop 57

By Michele Hanisee

Governor Brown recently visited the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board to sell Prop 57, telling them “I could talk about this all day.” What Governor Brown needs to do is talk about this initiative in a debate setting, where his statements about the scope and application of the initiative can be discussed with an informed opponent. Today, the No on 57 Committee challenged the Governor to a debate on Prop 57.

It has become clear that Governor Brown is selling a story about his initiative to audiences that he knows cannot challenge him because they do not know the case law and penal code sections which will govern the initiative. Earlier this year, columnist Dan Walters described deciphering which felons Prop 57 applies to as “difficult- perhaps by design, to minimize adverse voter reaction.”

The most recent example of Governor Brown’s sales pitch was his claim to the Sacramento Bee editorial staff that opponents are trying to “spook” voters by suggesting violent criminals will be let out of prison early under his initiative.   He told the editorial board his initiative only makes inmates “eligible for parole” but that the Board would be unlikely to release the type of felons that opponents have been featuring, echoing the voicemail he left for Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims (covered in this blog), where he incorrectly claimed the inmate in question would not be eligible for release under Prop 57.

First, one only needs to look at Parole Board releases since Governor Brown took office in 2011: the parole board has released 1863 inmates serving life sentences-more than the four previous Governors combined. In fact, Governor Brown has had to reverse many Parole Board release decisions, most recently that of Manson family member Leslie Van Houten .

Secondly, the Governor deliberately ignores the part of his initiative that states “The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shall have authority to award credits earned for good behavior and approved rehabilitative or educational achievements.” There is no restriction on the inmates to whom it applies; thus, these Department of Corrections can invent and apply new sentence credits for all inmates, meaning earlier release dates for all receiving the credit.

Another recent claim by the Governor was that ceding power to the Parole Board to determine when prisoners are released is comparable to the discretion of prosecutors. “They have discretion, just like the district attorneys who have unfettered discretion to charge or not.” Wrong, Governor. While District Attorneys have the discretion to file chargesthat only begins the legal process, as there are checks and balances to their power. There is an ethical obligation only to file charges provable beyond a reasonable doubt, and if a guilty plea does not occur a judge or a jury makes the decision on guilt. In contrast, the Parole Board can parole whomever it wants by whatever criteria (or lack of criteria) they desire, and that parole decision is made in a forum that is closed to the public and which is, in most cases, unreviewable by anyone-not the Governor, the Legislature, or Judges.

Other reasons cited by the Governor to vote for Prop 57 also have gone unchallenged. For example, the Governor touted the wisdom of havingparole boards determine release dates because “there was a lower recidivism rate” when Parole Boards determined the release date. The last time we had a penal system where the parole board determined release dates was in the 1970’s before the determinate sentencing laws took effect. So let’s look back to that time.

In the 1970’s and before the determinate sentencing law went into effect in 1976, crime was soaring in California. The crime rate (per 100,000 people) documents the increase in crime from 1970 to 1976: murders rose from 6.9 to 10; forcible rapes from 35.1 to 44.7, robberies from 206.9 to 275.4; aggravated assaults from 225.9 to 338.7; and burglaries from 1,753 to 2,174. That rise continued for a few years after the determinate sentencing law went into effect before the crime rate began to decrease drastically. How drastic? In 2014, in comparison to 1976, the crime rate in California had decreased by more than 50% in all categories listed above. In 2014, the murder rate was 4.4; rape 21.6; robbery 125.5; aggravated assault 236.6, and burglary 522.3. One reason for a decreased crime rate is that under the current determinate sentencing system, inmates serve longer time in prison.

When the Parole Board determined release dates, little time was served for serious offenses. How little? In the 1970’s, most inmates convicted of homicide served less than ten years. For example, 70% of prisoners convicted of homicide in 1972 were free after serving six years.   Other categories of crime saw equally short sentences; in 1974, three years was the average time served for serious crimes such as robbery, assault, burglary and auto theft.

These are just but a few rebuttals to the Governor’s carefully crafted talking points that have gone unchallenged.

The No on 57 campaign’s request to the Governor comes in response to the overwhelming demand for political discourse and the statement the Governor made that he can “talk all day” about Prop 57. We want to take him up on that offer. Governor it is time to debate Prop 57 so that voters can make a fully informed decision regarding this critical public safety issue.

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