Governor Brown’s Power Grab

By Eric Siddall

Governor Brown’s “early release” initiative is nothing more than a power grab on the part of the executive to take away power from judges, the legislature, and local prosecutors while centralizing power in the office of the governor. It undermines separation of powers and the authority of judges.

After a conviction, judges decide the sentences of defendants. They use various factors in determining the appropriate punishment, including sentencing guidelines that consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances. They consider the entire criminal history of the defendant. Only after this examination is complete, does a judge then elect the sentence that can range from probation to state prison.

Yet the governor wants to undo a judge’s authority to sentence. He wants parole boards to decide the actual sentence a convict will serve. He does this by radically expanding the power of the parole board to disregard the sentence handed down by a judge. He gives parole boards and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) unlimited constitutional authority to release criminals.

Judges will no longer determine the length of a convict’s prison sentence. Instead, unelected, unmonitored bureaucrats will now decide how long a convicted felon will serve in state prison. Unlike a sentencing judge, these bureaucrats did not hear the trial testimony, they are divorced from the impact these criminals have on neighborhoods, and they are unanswerable to the people. They make their decisions in a sterile environment with an eye at husbanding their agency’s resources.

The governor’s kafkaesque initiative reeks of disingenuous platitudes and shows an ignorance of basic civics. He says he wants judges to decide if a minor gets charged in adult court. He also wants to undermine the power of judges to sentence. Here is the problem. The decision to file is a function of the executive branch, in this case the district attorney’s office. The decision to sentence is a function of the judiciary, in this case the trial judge.

Here is what the initiative really does: It creates an impossible standard so that minors will never enter an adult court no matter how heinous the crime. So in reality judges do not make the call on whether a minor goes to adult court. Meanwhile, it creates the illusion that judges retain the power to sentence, but in reality the parole board and CDCR will really make the call on how long a convict serves in prison.

In effect, the initiative is a power grab by the governor that eviscerates the power of judges, local prosecutors, and the state legislature. All this from the governor who brought us Rose Bird.

Eric Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles deputy district attorneys in collective bargaining. Email: esiddall@laadda.com.