The clash between former Gov. Jerry Brown and California sheriffs continues with Prop. 20

Men lean on the railing on a cellblock in prison
California voters will decide in Proposition 20 whether to expand the list of crimes for which people are ineligible for early release from prison. Sheriffs on Thursday endorsed the measure, which is opposed by former Gov. Jerry Brown.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Longtime adversaries are clashing once again over changes to California’s criminal justice system, with a group representing the state’s sheriffs endorsing Proposition 20 on Thursday, while former Gov. Jerry Brown is attacking the initiative in television ads.

The ballot measure would expand the list of felonies for which those convicted are ineligible for early parole, increase penalties for repeat shoplifters and collect DNA samples from adults convicted of some misdemeanors.

Brown began airing ads this week criticizing the initiative, calling it a “prison spending scam.” And on Thursday, the California State Sheriffs’ Assn., a frequent opponent of the Brown’s that represents the state’s 58 sheriffs, said the measure is urgently needed for public safety.


The political battle over Proposition 20 threatens part of Brown’s legacy of shifting the state’s criminal justice system from mass incarceration to one with more emphasis on rehabilitation.

Sheriffs were at odds with Brown in 2016 when he won voter approval of Proposition 57, which increased parole and good behavior opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent felonies. That measure was opposed by more than two dozen sheriffs.

Proposition 20 would expand the list of crimes not eligible for early parole under Proposition 57, adding 22 offenses including felony assault with a deadly weapon, rape of an unconscious person and human trafficking of a child.

“We all know they are violent crimes,” said Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, president of the sheriffs’ association, during an online news conference to announce the endorsement.

He said it was also important for Proposition 20 to create a new felony for serial theft when a person is caught stealing for the third time, adding that stores are being hit repeatedly by serial shoplifting rings.

“The serial thieves are really wreaking havoc on our communities,” he said.

Robinson said the endorsement was approved by a majority of sheriffs who participated in a videoconference, but he would not say whether some were opposed. He was joined in the news conference by four other sheriffs, including Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.

“Currently law enforcement is being hampered in our ability to keep our public safe,” Bianco said.

But Brown says in television ads that began airing this week throughout California that Proposition 20 “won’t work” to reduce crime.

“It spends millions more on prisons and guts rehabilitation,” the former governor says in the ad. “Just locking up more people won’t reduce crime. We need to do more to turn lives around, not less.”

Brown ends the ad by arguing that “Proposition 20 is a scam, a prison spending scam.”

With a big part of his legacy on the line, Brown has put up $1 million from his political action committees toward the more than $7.6 million raised so far by the opposition campaign. The campaign has also received $2 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which was created by Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The California Democratic Party has also contributed.

Ana Zamora, director of criminal justice reform for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said Proposition 20 would return California to “failed” tough-on-crime policies.


“If passed, more people will be sent to prison, rehabilitation programs will be slashed, and taxpayers will pay the price,” Zamora said.

Supporters of Proposition 20 have raised $4.8 million, led by $2 million from the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the prison guards union; and $305,500 from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). The measure is also supported by the Republican Party of California and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LAPD officers.