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Will California blow another chance for criminal justice reform?

Will California blow another chance for criminal justice reform?
Gov. Jerry Brown on Feb. 24. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The whole point of a 2014 bill to reform California's initiative process, which at more than a century old was showing some hardening of the civic arteries, was to loosen it up. Allow the public to comment on proposals early on, before signature gathering begins. Let citizens offer suggestions. And, if the authors like what they hear, give them a chance to fit those ideas into their ballot measures.

And when the initiative is out for signatures, get the Legislature to hold some hearings to invite more input. Even at that point, when thousands of potential voters already have signed on, allow the authors to do some tweaks, correct any mistakes, and otherwise tidy up the language before continuing the petitioning. That way, presumably, there would be better initiatives and fewer lawsuits at the end of the process, after voters go to the polls and say "yes."

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But at each of those two stops — after the title and summary are approved but before signature-gathering starts, and then again in the midst of the petition drive — how sweeping a change will be allowed? If the original measure is completely remade at the first stop, should its sponsors have to get approval again from the Attorney General?

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FOR THE RECORD

Ballot initiative: A Feb. 28 editorial on changes to a ballot measure proposed by the governor's office said that changes could be made to initiatives both before signature gathering begins and after legislative hearings are held. Changes may be made only before signatures are gathered.

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As so often happens, the details are left to the courts to hammer out case by case. Because the law is so new, there have been few rulings, so there is little legal clarity.

A bit of guidance came last week in a Sacramento Superior Court judge's disappointing ruling invalidating a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to amend a criminal justice reform measure that was crafted with juveniles in mind but which came to include adult parole as well after public input in the pre-signature gathering round.

Why disappointing? Because Brown had a worthy proposal whose unifying subject was returning discretion to judges, prison officials and parole boards. The measure had not yet gone out for signatures, so there was no "bait and switch" being pulled by those folks with clipboards who stop shoppers on their way into supermarkets and coffee shops. Still, the California District Attorneys Assn. — whose members now have much of the discretion and flexibility that judges would win back if this measure were to pass — argued that there was too much of a change in the language in the pre-petitioning stage. The judge agreed.

Fortunately, the state Supreme Court is allowing the signature gathering to go forward pending an appeal. Let's hope the justices ultimately distinguish between the two new public input stops and recognize the need, under the new law, for more flexibility at the earlier stage, before the public has begun affixing their signatures. The district attorneys have enough political clout to keep the Legislature from putting this measure on the ballot, so the initiative process may be the only way to allow voters to keep their criminal justice system limber.

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