February 01, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy
CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.
Crime and the Coast
Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans for a major new ballot initiative this fall – but it wasn’t climate change or tax reform in the governor’s crosshairs. Instead, Brown will focus on criminal justice, seeking changes in the parole system to allow more flexibility to locals and to help alleviate the pressures of the jail and prison system caused by years of lock-em-up policies. Those policies, ironically enough, started with some of the mandatory sentencing laws signed by Brown during his first stint as governor and marked our state’s criminal justice policy throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
But in California, the tide has turned in recent years, as voters have passed initiatives that favored more rehabilitation for non-violent drug offenders, as well as measures like Proposition 47, which reclassified many nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors.
Brown himself has been steeped in criminal justice reform since retaking the governor’s office in 2011, with the federal government in charge of the state prison system, and federal judges ordering the state to alleviate its prison crowding problem.
Without the resources or political will to build more prisons, Brown instead has adopted a policy of realignment, moving thousands of offenders to local jails instead of state prisons, in the process creating new budget pressures and public safety issues for counties.
The appetite for reform has grown nationally. President Obama mentioned criminal justice changes as one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans may be able to work together this year. Groups as diverse as the Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter have talked about the need to change the nation’s policies about incarceration.
Brown’s new plan would have to be approved by voters, and the governor said he is willing to spend some of his political war chest – currently at about $25 million – on a November ballot measure.
Brown’s measure authorizes parole consideration for nonviolent inmates who complete the full sentence for their primary offense. It also allows inmates to earn credits for good behavior, education and rehabilitative achievement, and requires judges, rather than prosecutors, to decide whether juveniles as young as 14 years old should be tried as adults.
Meanwhile, the governor is coming under fire from environmental groups who accuse Brown of leading a secret coup at the California Coastal Commission. After years of poor performance reviews and ignored calls for more diversity on the commission staff, a majority of commissioners say they support replacing the current executive director, Charles Lester.
Lester, who is cozy with environmental activists, has painted his attempted ouster as an effort to bring a more pro-development tenor to the staff. The commissioners who support replacing Lester call this a red herring, and say the real need for a change comes from Lester’s poor management style and willful refusal to extend even simple courtesies to homeowners or local governments on coastal questions.
In any event, the mess has spilled over into the public sphere and landed on the governor’s desk. Four of the commission’s 12 members serve at the pleasure of the governor, while the other eight serve fixed terms appointed by the Assembly Speaker and Senate Rules Committee.
It would take at least six votes to replace Lester, which means it would take more than just Brown appointees to oust him.
The entire sordid affair will come to a head on February 10, when the commission next meets in Morro Bay. Bring your popcorn…