Civil rights advocate and whistleblower, Sean Erenstoft pledged his support last week for Governor Jerry Brown’s announced ballot measure intended to reform key aspects of California’s antiquated justice system and laws.
California Governor Jerry Brown announced The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, a ballot measure to be voted on by Californians in November 2016. Newspaper headlines immediately declared, “Jerry Brown wants to make it easier for non-violent offenders to get parole” and “California governor pushes ballot measure to release nonviolent criminals from prison earlier.” By almost every account, the proposal was lauded as a paradigm of modern criminal justice reform.
During an introductory conference call discussing the initiative, Brown outlined: “This affects thousands of inmates and it is significant.” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck declared, “California currently keeps the wrong people incarcerated for the wrong length of time . . . I think that this will effectively open up bed space for those that richly deserve to be there.” Even Bonnie Dumanis, the Republican District Attorney of San Diego, enthusiastically affirmed that “these changes would encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs that would make prisons and communities safer.”
Erenstoft cites examples from the 2016 presidential campaign when growing national sentiment spawned, in part, by the political campaign of Bernie Sanders and others who are drawing renewed interest the prison over-crowding and the illogical incarceration of adults for non-violent and low-class drug offenses. “Even Rand Paul and other credible political leaders on the right have stepped back from their monolithic ‘tough on crime’ stances to embrace a more humane take on current realities.”
Astutely, the legislators who drafted the California Penal Code were keen enough to clarify what qualifies as a “violent” felony under California law. There are only twenty-two “violent felonies” listed in California Penal Code Section 667.5(C)(1-22). That list certainly includes the worst possible crimes: murder, robbery, kidnapping, child molestation, and rape. But the label “violent felonies” is a bit of a misnomer because there are many other crimes that also involve significant violence but are not on that list.
Erenstoft applauds the this lack of clarity because it ultimately allows prosecutors and judges to craft sentencing options on a case-by-case basis. Unlike the one-size-fits-all of the generally failed “three-strikes” framework whereby exceptions practically swallow the rule, the new legislation remains “flexible enough.”