Californians likely will be asked to decide in November whether to expand parole to thousands more inmates in what would be the state's biggest change in sentencing law in decades.
The proposed reworking of the parole system cleared a key hurdle Monday, when the California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that the proponents of a ballot measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown did not violate a state election law. The ruling, a victory for Brown, gives the attorney general wide latitude to accept last-minute, major changes to proposed initiatives.
If enough petition signatures are validated, a measure would be placed on the fall ballot to allow a parole board to consider early release for thousands of inmates not currently eligible for parole -- a step Brown has said is needed to comply with a federal court order to reduce the prison population.
Brown's proposal is the latest of several recent measures intended to reduce lengthy sentences in the state. In 2011, the state shifted lower-level prison felons to county jails, worsening local overcrowding and forcing widespread local releases but only temporarily reducing the prison population.
A year later, voters passed a measure to limit the tough three-strikes sentencing law. A third strike must be violent to justify a life sentence.
In 2014, voters adopted a measure that reduced some felonies to misdemeanors. Certain drug possession felonies became misdemeanors, as did petty theft, receiving stolen property and writing bad checks for less than $950. That measure led to the release of 4,000 inmates.
But Brown's proposal goes further. Nearly four decades after signing a law requiring strict sentences — a move that Brown now laments had "unintended consequences"— he wants voters to permit a possible early release on parole of felons whose primary crime was nonviolent.
The tough-on-crime laws of previous decades, including the one Brown signed, produced severely overcrowded prisons, and the state is under a federal court mandate to bring down the prison population.
To accomplish this, Brown would vastly expand parole opportunities.
Inmates would be eligible for parole after serving only the sentence for their core crime, negating time tacked on for gang membership, a gun or prior offenses.
Inmates would also receive increased credits for good behavior, and a judge, instead of a prosecutor, would decide whether to try someone as young as 14 in juvenile court or adult court.
"By allowing parole consideration if they do good things, they will then have an incentive … to show those who will be judging whether or not they're ready to go back into society," Brown said in announcing his plan.
The conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has estimated that 42,000 inmates would be eligible for early parole under the initiative.
Under threat of court-ordered mass releases, the state now relies on contracts to hold thousands of inmates in private prisons as far away as Mississippi. But the prison population is once again rising, after reaching a low of 127,272 in February.
A year ago the governor telephoned Mike Ramos, the chief prosecutor for San Bernardino County, telling him: "We've got a problem. Your county is sending too many people to prison."
Ramos said he tried to discourage Brown from launching what would be another major shock wave to local law enforcement agencies.
"I understand where the governor is coming from," Ramos said, "but generally speaking this initiative is going to put career criminals back on the streets."
Former Gov. Pete Wilson called Brown's prison crowding solution "a great leap backwards." He said the initiative overrides decades of penalties added by lawmakers under multiple governors, including himself, in answer to specific crimes.
So-called enhancements include the two to four years added to sentences for gang-related crimes, and five to 25 years tacked on to crimes where a gun is used. The terms for the enhancements can exceed the sentence for the primary crime.
An analysis by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation predicts the sharpest reductions -- cutting sentences by up to two-thirds -- for some of the most common crimes: residential burglary, assault and drug trafficking. The group said it is unclear if actual parole boards would be asked to consider those releases, or if eligible inmates would be paroled automatically.
Prosecutors say the Brown measure would make California's tough sentencing laws meaningless, though there is no guarantee that a parole board would recommend release or that the recommendations would be accepted by governors.
The campaign has raised $5 million, though much of that was spent on gathering signatures. Most of the money has come from Brown's own political war chest, the rest primarily from unions. Robert Downey Jr., whom Brown pardoned on Christmas Eve, contributed $35,000.
The latest count shows that the measure received 1,003,001 signatures — far more than the 585,407 required. It must be certified for the ballot by June 30.
Brown unveiled his parole plan in late January. To get it on the November ballot, he folded into an existing proposed ballot measure on juvenile justice.
An association of district attorneys sued, charging that Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris should not have accepted such sweeping changes to an initiative that was in the final stages of review.
In a ruling written by Justice Carol A. Corrigan, the state high court said the election law was intended to help initiative proponents, not restrain them.
As long as amendments are "reasonably germane" to the topic of an initiative, they are allowed, even if they are added after the end of a 30-day public comment period, the court said.
"There is no question that the changes the proponents made to this initiative measure were, in certain respects, quite extensive," Corrigan wrote.
But she said they satisfied the "reasonably germane" requirement.
In a dissent, Justice Ming W. Chin suggested the parole measure was poorly drafted and would have benefited from public comment. Unlike the juvenile justice proposal, Brown's revision would amend the California Constitution, a major change, Chin said.
"Dramatically changing the sentencing laws — by permitting early parole for some offenders, contrary to the detailed sentencing scheme currently in effect — is not reasonably germane to changing the treatment of juvenile and youthful offenders in the criminal justice system," he wrote.
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.
5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information throughout.
10:48 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about the ruling.