Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown reverses on crime

Gov. Jerry Brown’s timing seems perfect as he asks voters to modify a tough anti-crime policy he signed four decades ago.

As the governor unveiled last week his ballot measure to make it easier for nonviolent felons to be paroled and soften the treatment of juvenile offenders, the Public Policy Institute of California released one of its periodic attitudinal polls of the California public.

PPIC found that Brown’s standing is high, with a nearly 60 percent approval rating, fear of crime doesn’t register strongly and Californians don’t like their tax money going into prisons, which they erroneously think is the state’s biggest expense.

Moreover, the state’s voters have not reacted negatively to Brown’s past acts – under pressure from federal courts – to reduce the prison population, and have themselves voted to soften treatment of some low-level crimes.

During Brown’s first stint as governor four decades ago, California’s crime rate was soaring and politicians accused of being soft on crime were being ousted by voters.

Ever sensitive to political mood swings, he enthusiastically embraced a crackdown on crime and, among other acts, signed legislation to do away with the state’s indeterminate sentencing law that gave judges and correctional officials leeway on handling felons, and replace it with a law mandating fixed terms.

At the time, the state’s prisons housed scarcely 20,000 men and women, but the crackdown – which included many other lock-’em-up laws and tougher attitudes by prosecutors and judges – created a flood of new inmates, and Brown was compelled to ask voters for a bond issue to build new prisons.

Over the next few decades, the state built 22 prisons and filled them – actually overfilled them – with more than 160,000 inmates and the cost of incarceration increased 20-fold to $10-plus billion a year.

Brown eventually returned to Sacramento as attorney general and then ran for governor.

In both roles, he faced federal court pressure to alleviate prison overcrowding. Meanwhile, he had concluded that the determinate sentence law he championed and a tough juvenile law that voters had passed in 2000 were counterproductive and had “unintended consequences.”

“And one of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves,” he said last week, “because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around.”

Brown’s new measure adds fuel to a simmering debate over whether reducing prison populations through diversion of felons into local jails and probation and Proposition 47, the 2014 measure that reduces penalties for some crime, have sparked a sharp uptick in crime.

Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen is one who says they have.

Nielsen – who was first elected to the Legislature in 1978 on the crime issue, defeating a Democratic incumbent, and served eight years on the state parole board – immediately denounced Brown’s new measure, citing reports of sharp violent crime increases in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

While the political climate appears favorable for Brown’s measure this year and he has a $24 million campaign account to spend on it, were police organizations to oppose it strenuously, its path to enactment might not be smooth.