California Supreme Court allows governor's prison plan

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Gov. Jerry Brown did not illegally gut an existing ballot initiative to try to get his plan to reduce the state's prison population before voters in November, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 6-1 decision all but guarantees that voters will have a chance to weigh in this year on Brown's changes increasing sentencing credits for adult inmates and allowing earlier parole for non-violent felons. The proposals give Brown a chance to ease a tough sentencing law he enacted during his first term in office in the 1970s that he has since called a failure and add his stamp to the growing national movement for prison reform.

The California Supreme Court said Brown's changes were consistent with a 2014 law that required amendments that are "reasonably germane" to the original initiative and mandated a 30-day public comment period for initiative proposals.

"There is no question that the changes the proponents made to this initiative measure were, in certain respects, quite extensive," Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority. "However, that is their right, so long as the changes are reasonably germane to the original theme, purpose, or subject."

Brown in May submitted nearly double the number of signatures he needed to qualify his measure for the November ballot, though elections officials still have to sign off on the validity of the signatures.

Brown said the changes were needed to help keep the inmate population below the level required by federal judges, and it was too late to start over and still collect the signatures needed for a ballot measure this year. The measure would increase sentencing credits for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs and allow non-violent felons to seek parole after they have completed their base sentences, without enhancements for things such as gang involvement or firearms possession that can add years to a prison term. The changes would mitigate the fixed sentencing law Brown signed during his first term.

Opponents accused Brown of hijacking a measure that dealt with juvenile offenders to push through his proposals for the adult prison population.

"(Californians) will now have a chance to improve public safety by voting to provide incentives so that more people follow the rules, educate themselves, and turn their lives around," Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown and other initiative supporters, said in an email.

The California District Attorneys Association sued to block Brown's initiative, accusing the governor of completely rewriting the original juvenile justice measure to sidestep the normal initiative process and failing to give the public a chance to comment on the changes. Allowing Brown's changes would encourage other initiative proponents to pull a similar bait-and-switch, it argued.

A lower court agreed with the association and in February blocked Attorney General Kamala Harris from issuing documents that Brown supporters needed to gather signatures. The state Supreme Court overturned that decision on Monday.

"We are disappointed in the decision by the Supreme Court and continue to believe this sets a dangerous precedent for the initiative process for the future," said Steve Wagstaffe, president-elect of the California District Attorneys Association.

Wagstaffe said district attorneys would continue to fight what he called Brown's "dangerous" measure, which they say would increase crime and undermine laws designed to protect crime victims' rights.

The high court said in Monday's ruling that both the original measure and Brown's changes intended to speed up parole review dates for inmates and reduce the costs of incarceration.

Additionally, the court said the legislature intended the 30-day public comment period for new initiative proposals to provide feedback to its proponents, not as a public forum for discussion. Brown's amendments came after the 30-day public comment period.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Ming Chin said Brown's changes had nothing to do with the original measure's focus on juveniles, and the majority was shortchanging the public.

"Under today's ruling, future initiative proponents can evade the period of public review in the same way the proponents have done here," he said. "They merely need to hijack a vaguely similar measure that was in the process of qualifying."