Twenty-six years ago, on a statewide ballot overloaded with 29 propositions and a presidential race, voters approved Proposition 89, which allowed the governor to reverse state parole board decisions.
It's hard to say how much voters mulled the question, given the many important decisions they made that day and how relatively innocuous it may have seemed to give California's top elected official veto power over decisions to release dangerous criminals.
That initiative, however, has had real consequences for prisoners. Every governor since then has used the veto, resulting in the continued incarceration of many who otherwise would be free.
Six years ago, voters were again asked to make a law, with Proposition 9, that affected the lives of prisoners. The Victims' Rights and Protection Act of 2008, or Marsy's Law, made consideration of victims' needs central to the judicial process. Marsy, who was murdered in 1983, was the sister of billionaire Henry Nicholas. He bankrolled the initiative.
The act set forth rules for keeping victims informed of proceedings. It allowed them input in the prosecution and required restitution. Another rule stretched the time between parole hearings, from one to three years, to spare victims of heinous crimes and their families from having to relive them too often. But in so doing, the law effectively changed the terms of incarceration for convicts retroactively. The U.S. Constitution, in its "ex post facto" clause, prohibits that.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled in Gilman v. Brown that both propositions are unconstitutional as applied to people who were convicted before the laws passed.
The Fresno Bee Editorial Board, like virtually every editorial board in the state, recommended a "no" vote for Proposition 9, saying it would make it harder to control prison costs and would add to prison overcrowding. That's exactly what has happened in California, which is now under a federal court order to reduce its prison population.
Karlton's ruling, if it stands, could help a little. It will allow thousands of prisoners convicted before November 2008 to have parole board hearings this year. If those convicted before November 1988 are granted parole, the ruling bars the governor from overturning the decision.
Instead of a reason for alarm, this ruling will allow lawmakers room for wiser choices about how to depopulate the state's prisons. Parole boards review cases carefully and aren't going to release a convict who seems likely to endanger the public.