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Old Brown tries to fix a young Brown's mistake

Old Brown tries to fix a young Brown's mistake
Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, the year he signed a law to change sentencing from indeterminate to determinate. Last week, he reversed himself. (Los Angeles Times)

— Hang around long enough and you might see things turn full circle. People included.

Like a comet, they come back around.

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Gov. Jerry Brown is a comet. He dominated the Capitol cosmos two generations ago, floated off and circled back.

Now one of the major public policy issues of 40 years ago also has returned, meteor-like. It concerns criminal sentencing.

Like too many things involving government, however, the jargon is wonky: "determinate" and "indeterminate."

Put simply, it's about whether a judge determines how long a felon will be locked up, or left undetermined, with parole boards having the flexibility to retain or release an inmate based on behavior and perceived rehabilitation.

In 1976, young Gov. Brown was a reformer who signed legislation changing sentencing from indeterminate to determinate.

Last week, he proposed a new reform: Scrap that 1970s reform and return to basically the way things had been for six decades before.

Times change. Situations change. Ideas? Not so much.

I asked Brown why he and the Legislature had changed the system in the first place four decades ago.

Back then, he'd been thinking about it for a long time, he recalled, even when his father, Pat Brown, was governor in the 1960s.

"People were lingering in prisons and didn't know when they were going to get out," he said. "Racial minorities might be in longer."

Prisoners, the governor continued, were compelled "to mouth certain words" to demonstrate their readiness for freedom. White parole boards seemed to be "trying to get the prisoners to have a certain mentality, messing with their heads. It didn't seem right to me.

"It came to me that if they did the crime, they should do the time. And then get out."

That became many legislators' attitude: The whole system was arbitrary and unfair — sometimes political and racial.

What else could you expect from sentences so broad? For example, one to 14 years or five to life.

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Republican Sen. John Negedly, a former Contra Costa County district attorney, had sponsored the bill that switched sentences from flexible to more fixed.

"Punishment should be swift, certain and definite," Brown said after signing the measure. But soon he began having second thoughts, mentioning "ambiguities" in the new law.

There was bipartisan criticism.

Then-LAPD Chief Ed Davis, a conservative Republican, planning to run against Brown, complained that prisoners no longer would "have to pay much attention" to guards. Brown "is going to blow these prisons up before I can take over as governor."

State Sen. Alan Sieroty, a liberal Democrat from Los Angeles, feared that fixed sentencing would lead to longer terms. That would only "further brutalize the individual and make his reentry into society less possible."

Both were right.

"Liberals thought the Legislature would jack up the sentences, which it did," Brown told me. "And it never stopped. I never imagined there'd be thousands of [increased sentencing] laws and enhancements."

State government embarked on a prison-building, lock-em-up binge. There was a political stampede in the 1990s after the L.A. riots and the gripping kidnap-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Voters and the Legislature passed "three strikes and you're out" — meaning you're "in" for life.

When Brown was governor the first time, there were 21,000 inmates in state custody. By the time he returned in 2011, the number had ballooned to 170,000 — packed like sardines into bunks and sleeping on cots in gymnasiums. At one point, taxpayers were spending more on prisoners than on college kids.

Prisoners-rights groups sued. A federal judicial panel ordered the state to knock it off. Voters and the governor got the message.

The California electorate softened three-strikes and other sentencing laws. Brown, through what he calls "realignment," began shifting control of low-level felons to the counties.

The state prison population is now down to 127,000.

Brown has wanted to eliminate determinate sentencing for years — calling it an "abysmal failure" in 2003 — but said he first needed to achieve realignment and form a political coalition.

"If I'd done it right out of the box, I might have made mistakes," he told me.

Brown added that he'd also been pretty busy.

"No one has done more than I have," he said, listing such things as pension reform, water programs and fighting climate change. "I haven't been sitting on my ass."

The governor's sentencing proposal is targeted for the November ballot as an initiative. It would affect only inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. Murderers and rapists, forget it.

A nonviolent felon would need to complete his time for the basic crime. But he could earn credits for good behavior and rehab. And before serving added time for an enhancement — such as gang activity — he could seek parole for being a model prisoner

An "unintended consequence" of the law he signed 40 years ago, Brown told reporters, "was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves, refrain from gang activity, using narcotics, otherwise misbehaving. Because they had a certain [release] date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around."

Why the ballot and not the Legislature? It would require a two-thirds legislative vote, and that's a hassle. And he has $24 million in leftover campaign money begging to be spent.

This reform seems to make sense. The old one did, too — at the time. But this is another time.

The lingo also should change. Junk "determinate" and call it "fixed" or "flexible."

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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