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State Supreme Court to weigh Gov. Brown’s prison release initiative

At issue is that Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal was amended into an existing proposed initiative, resulting in what the California District Attorneys Assn. claims is an “entire rewrite.” Above, San Quentin State Prison.
At issue is that Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal was amended into an existing proposed initiative, resulting in what the California District Attorneys Assn. claims is an “entire rewrite.” Above, San Quentin State Prison.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

California’s highest court is slated to hear arguments Thursday on whether Gov. Jerry Brown may ask voters in November to allow an early release from prison for some who were convicted of nonviolent crimes.

The California Supreme Court hearing, scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT, can be watched live on the court’s website.

Brown’s proposal, unveiled in late January as part of a plan to reduce the prison population, was amended into an existing proposed initiative that dealt solely with juvenile justice.

The California District Attorneys Assn., arguing that Brown’s proposals resulted in an “entire rewrite” of the original measure, persuaded a Sacramento judge in February to prevent the proposal from being circulated for voter signatures.

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The California Supreme Court put a hold on the judge’s order a few days later and agreed to decide whether the measure could go on the November ballot. A decision is due within 90 days.

At issue is a 2014 California law that says a proposed ballot measure may be amended 35 days after being submitted as long as the changes are “reasonably germane” to the subject of the initiative.

Brown’s changes were added on the 35th day, five days after a public comment period ended, and prosecutors contended they gutted, rather than amended, the previous proposal.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the state high court’s decision to allow signatures to be gathered before deciding the case was “not a good sign” for prosecutors.

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Still, he said, the election law at the heart of the dispute is new and untested, and it is hard to predict how the Supreme Court will interpret it.

“You are kind of at sea,” he said.

Juvenile justice and criminal defense groups have urged the court to allow the measure to go forward.

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The proposed initiative replaced one submitted in December by Hollywood director Scott Budnick and other advocates for juveniles. Budnick later praised Brown’s involvement.

The measure now being circulated would require a judge instead of a prosecutor to determine whether someone as young as 14 should be tried as an adult and allow for parole hearings after inmates complete their sentences for their base crime.

Depending on the governor and the parole board, some inmates could get years sliced off their sentences. Judges could continue to extend sentences for secondary offenses or the use of a gun or gang involvement, but those added years would have less effect for some offenders.

The official deadline for an initiative to qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot is June 30, but signatures must be submitted in the next few weeks to allow elections officials enough time to complete their work.

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“The timeline looks very, very tight,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant working on the governor’s ballot measure campaign.

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So far, that effort has cost more than $2.8 million, with almost all that coming from Brown’s own political campaign funds.

As of last month, the campaign was paying circulators as much as $5 for each signature obtained.

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Newman declined to say how many signatures have been collected, noting only that the campaign is in the “home stretch” and has supplemented its paid efforts with many volunteers.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

john.myers@latimes.com

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Twitter: @johnmyers

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