California crime laws are due for an overhaul, Gov. Jerry Brown says

Gov. Jerry Brown on need for new sentencing laws

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday told federal judges that California needs to change how it sets prison sentences.

(Paige St. John / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown used a forum for federal judges Wednesday to make the case in strong terms that California’s crime laws have gone too far and inmate behavior should play a greater role in determining the length of a prison stay.

Over the course of half an hour, he outlined his belief that the fixed-length criminal sentences he approved as governor three decades ago have glutted state prisons with long-stay offenders.

He called for at least a partial return to times when parole boards alone decided an inmate was ready to be freed -- a system that Brown acknowledged was largely dropped for being arbitrary and harsh on racial minorities. Except for those sentenced to life with parole, inmates now serve set terms fixed largely by law.

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“Now the whole system is arbitrary,” Brown said. “Instead of disadvantaging a small minority, we now cover the whole system.... In this process we have 5,000 criminal provisions and there are 400 enhancements.”

He offered no concrete solution, but suggested parole boards should be given “greater latitude” in deciding, he said, “When is it time to go home?”

Finding public support for such changes is a major problem, Brown told members of the 9th Circuit federal courts at the outset of a three-day conference on prison litigation. He cited the risk politicians face of being accused of jeopardizing public safety.

“It’s very political,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear of what to do.”


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