Proposition 57

Proposition 57: Increased Parole Options, Good Time Sentence Options, Courts Empowered To Try Minors As Adults

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) currently houses 128,000 felons in our State Prison system.[1] The State Prison system differs from our county jails that also house inmates but generally for shorter periods of time and lesser offenses. Some felons in State Prison stay in there while serving less serious offenses.[2] Presently, once an inmate has served his or her minimum sentence he or she may apply for parole – so someone serving 25 years to life can begin to seek parole after 25 years. Additionally, about 2/3 of prisoners have the ability to get extra credit for doing works and other activities in the jail; this is referred to as “Good Time” credits. Most of those eligible for Good Time credits can reduce their sentences by up to 15% under State Law.[3]

Juvenile Court – as the name implied – is intended to deal with children (those under the age of 18) charged with a crime. Under our present statutory scheme, in some circumstances, minors are required by statute to be tried as adults, in others a prosecutor may decide to try the child as an adult, and in still others the court can make that decision.[4]

This proposition proposes to make the following changes to this system:

  • Allows parole consideration for persons convicted of nonviolent felonies, upon completion of prison term for their primary offense. This would allow about 30,000 inmates who have already served their primary sentences to seek parole. If the parole board agreed, those inmates could be released early under various supervision requirements. There is no obligation that parole must be granted and in reality it rarely is.[5]
  • Authorizes CDCR to award sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, or educational achievements. While the CDCR is authorized to increase such credits, it is under no obligation to do so.
  • Requires CDCR to adopt regulations to implement new parole and sentence credit provisions and certify they enhance public safety.
  • Mandates that only juvenile court judges shall make determination, upon prosecutor motion, whether juveniles age 14 and older should be prosecuted and sentenced as adults for specified offenses. In other words, no child would automatically be tried as an adult and no prosecutor would be permitted to try a child as an adult without court approval.

The Legislative Analyst predicts that these changes would result in a net savings to the state of tens of millions annually, offset somewhat by lower accelerated costs of supervision by county governments (costs that would have been incurred later had parole not been granted earlier).[6]

Opponents correctly note that while the Proposition is intended to make about 7500 prisoner newly “parole eligible” most estimates are that only about 750 inmates would be released.[7] But that is actually one of the things we like about this initiative. We wouldn’t want voters considering an initiative to have the last word on whether a particular inmate is or is not a safe bet for release. We’d much prefer a plan that increases the number of prisoners who can attain release, but keeping the rather conservative system we have of evaluating each prisoner on his or her own merits. In part that is because we are aware that the data on recidivism rates isn’t encouraging.[8] But Proposition 57 simply allows for the possibility of parole to a greater number of inmates. There is still a parole board that needs to recommend parole, and even then, the Governor has the right to overturn the board’s recommendation – that is the way parole works; it is discretionary.[9] Opponents also complain that the Proposition purports to target “non-violent” felons, but does not identify what that means.[10] We think that criticism is fair, but not disqualifying. First, there are several statutes that use the same terminology and those have been adopted by the CDCR itself[11] so we think courts will have little difficulty in understanding the meaning of “non-violent”; more importantly (at the risk of being redundant) inmates re not released based on this Proposition – they are only given the chance to appear before a parole board. That added level of discretion (two if you count the Governor’s review as well) in our view provides sufficient oversight to allow for reasonable decision-making.[12]

Surprisingly, few of the opponents discuss the two aspects of this Proposition that we feel are most compelling – allowing the CDCR to offer more “Good Time” credits and shifting the decision to charge juveniles as adults to the sound decision making of judges. Perhaps this is because it is hard to argue against “Good Time” credits – offering incentives to prisoners is a great way to encourage better behavior both in the short and long term.[13]

Also ignored is the change that imbues the decision of trying a minor as an adult exclusively in the hands of a judge – rather than the current system that sometimes offers no discretion (a statutory obligation) and other times places the discretion in the hands of the charging prosecutor. As one study, relied upon by legislators who held hearings on Proposition 57 noted:

“[P]rosecutors are increasingly charging youth in adult courts despite plummeting youth crime. Though California experienced a 55 percent drop in youth felony arrests, direct files increased 23 percent per capita from 2003 to 2014. . . . ‘The decision to send a young person to the adult system is a serious one with long-term and negative consequences,’ said Guzman. ‘The decision should be made rarely and only after careful consideration by a judge…’”[14]

Indeed, even some District Attorneys acknowledge that the proposition passed in the 2000s that shifted this power away from judges was “overkill” and should be rolled back.[15]

In sum, Proposition 57 is in part good policy because of California’s past bad policies. Governor Brown (our current hero for a host of reasons) concedes that he was part of the problem 40 years ago when he enacted determinate sentencing laws that mandated longer sentences. Over those 40 years subsequent governors and numerous propositions piled on – resulting in an increase in State Prison inmates from around 20,000 in 1978 to nearly 130,000 today.[16] There is no real need to analyze whether that is too high a number because two successive Federal Court decisions have told California it must reduce its prison population. As one Editorial Board explained:

“Californians now have two choices: continue to pay more taxes to build more prisons to keep more people behind bars; or reform the sentencing and incarceration system to more reasonably punish and rehabilitate criminals…To do nothing and allow California’s prison overcrowding to grow is a dangerous alternative. At some point, probably in the very near future, the federal courts will mandate the release of prisoners.”[17]

It is also the first time in a very long time that we’ve seen legislation that actually seeks to re-train offenders with skills that can help them outside prison – like some editorial boards we like the idea of increasing Good Time credit as a “carrot” to entice prisoners to learn to help themselves.[18] We also agree that judges are in the best position to make the crucial decision of when a minor is so far gone that he or she should be transferred to adult court rather than the more rehabilitation-oriented juvenile court. For each of these reasons, we support Governor Brown’s most recent reform to our overcrowded prison system.

Recommendation: Moderate YES

[1] http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/analysis.htm

[2] http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/analysis.htm

[3] Id.

[4] For a more detailed explanation see of the breakdown see http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/analysis.htm

[5] Solid statistics are hard to find, but those facing life in prison have about a 20% chance of being granted parole. http://law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/default/files/child-page/164096/doc/slspublic/SCJC_report_Parole_Release_for_Lifers.pdf

[6] http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/analysis.htm

[7] http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/09/23/editorial-vote-no-on-sloppily-written-prop-57/

[8]http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Adult_Research_Branch/Research_Documents/ARB_FY_0809_Recidivism_Report_02.10.14.pdf

[9] http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/analysis.htm

[10] http://abc30.com/politics/hotly-contested-prop-57-pros-and-cons/1586462/

[11] http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/parole/non_revocable_parole/violent_offenses_defined.html

[12] This article offers a good examination of the importance of the parole provisions in Proposition 57. http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/soapbox/article111675147.html

[13] http://news.stanford.edu/2015/10/06/prisoners-early-release-101615/

[14] http://www.cjcj.org/news/10555

[15] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-end-proposition-57-20161004-snap-story.html

[16] http://www.bakersfield.com/opinion/our-view-vote-yes-on-prop-reform-california-s-sentencing/article_9b6be094-f318-5ae9-8c83-9c4cf5d9a472.html

[17] http://www.bakersfield.com/opinion/our-view-vote-yes-on-prop-reform-california-s-sentencing/article_9b6be094-f318-5ae9-8c83-9c4cf5d9a472.html; see also http://www.ocregister.com/articles/five-732211-california-years.html

[18] http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/The-Chronicle-recommends-Yes-on-Prop-57-9215121.php

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