Gov. Brown’s ballot measure on crime remains alive for now

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The state Supreme Court kept Gov. Jerry Brown’s November crime initiative alive Wednesday, rejecting a request by prosecutors to halt signature-gathering on the measure, which would let some nonviolent criminals seek early parole and make it harder to charge juveniles as adults.

The court had cleared the measure for circulation Feb. 26, suspending a ruling by a Sacramento judge blocking it. On Wednesday, the justices refused to reinstate the Sacramento ruling and instead said they would hear arguments on the legality of the initiative. In the meantime, supporters can work on collecting the 585,407 signatures of registered voters they need to put it on the November ballot.



The initiative would allow inmates convicted of certain nonviolent crimes, with good behavior in prison, to apply for parole after completing their basic sentence. They would not have to serve additional time for previous convictions, for the amount of harm they had caused or for other so-called aggravating circumstances. Those inmates now serve full fixed-term sentences, and the parole board considers only the cases of inmates whose maximum sentences are life in prison.

Brown’s measure would also repeal part of a 2000 initiative that allowed prosecutors to charge adults as young as 14 in adult court for serious crimes. Youths convicted as adults can be sentenced, like other criminals, to terms as long as life in prison, but they cannot face the death penalty. Those sentenced in Juvenile Court must be freed at age 23.

The proposed initiative would restore a previous law that required a Juvenile Court judge to review each case and decide whether it belonged in adult court, based on the youth’s actions and background.

The changes in juvenile law had been proposed as a separate initiative by private citizens, who agreed to let Brown combine it with his proposals on prison sentencing. The California District Attorneys Association, which opposes the sentencing changes, argued that the governor had “hijacked” the juvenile initiative and should have given the public an additional 30 days to comment on his measure before submitting it for signature-gathering — a timetable that would have made it impossible to make the November ballot.

Brown’s lawyers contend that the two measures address the same general subject and that no further comment period was needed. The state Supreme Court said it would hear arguments on that issue after receiving written responses from each side by the end of March. If the court rules that the measures were improperly combined without additional public comment, it would keep the measure off the ballot.

Mark Zahner, executive director of the District Attorneys Association, said he was disappointed that the court had deferred a final decision but remained confident in his group’s legal arguments. He said that he understands Brown’s intention to reduce the state’s prison population, under federal court scrutiny, but that the proposed sentencing changes are “too much, too sweeping.”

Brown said it was “perplexing why these DAs would deny the people of California the right to vote on this important public-safety measure.”

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @egelko



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