By Christopher Zoukis
With scant weeks remaining before Congress calls it quits, it seems certain there won’t be final action on criminal justice reform measures that started out strongly, but soon got bogged down in the quagmire that is modern-day Capitol Hill.
Proposals introduced early in 2015 to ease mandatory minimum sentencing laws and promote alternatives to incarceration seem fated to expire in the final days of the 114th Congress despite substantial bipartisan support, both in Congress and outside, including not just the Obama administration but many Republican conservatives, and by groups ranging from the American Conservative Union to the American Civil Liberties Union.
But while the drive for federal legislation appears stalled, at least temporarily, voters this November adopted a number of state ballot proposals to revise criminal laws and sentencing practices. California is a leading example. Nearly 64 percent of voters there handily approved Proposition 57, also known as the “Justice and Rehabilitation Act,” a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), over the opposition of many of the state’s district attorneys and sheriffs, who argued it was too lenient and too broadly defined some sex offenses as nonviolent.
The ballot initiative undid part of a tougher sentencing provision Brown had signed into law 40 years earlier. Brown defended the proposed changes as needed to meet court-ordered reductions in state prison overcrowding. The most significant and controversial part of the ballot measure proposed to remove some crimes from the “determinate” sentencing law Brown had long ago championed.
As approved by the state’s voters, inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who have completed their full sentences for their primary offense — without reference to any other provision of state law providing sentence enhancements, alternatives or consecutive sentences — and who had also passed a review on public safety concerns would be eligible for parole. State officials estimated this would make at least 7,000 inmates immediately eligible for release on parole.
The measure also directed state prison officials to devise a new system for shortening sentences for contained inmates’ good conduct while incarcerated, and reversed provisions in a law passed in 2000 which sent more juvenile defendants to adult courts. As passed, the initiative left it to state court judges, rather than to prosecutors, to determine whether offenders as young as 14 will be tried as juveniles or adults.
To get onto the state’s crowded ballot, backers had to not only round up valid signatures from nearly 600,000 voters, but to beat back a lawsuit filed by the California District Attorneys Association challenging the decision by state Attorney-General (now Senator-elect) Kamala Harris to allow the original, narrower petition of juvenile justice provisions to be broadened by adding the other provisions.
Ballot initiatives on criminal justice reform were not just limited to the Golden State. In Oklahoma, voters also approved, by comfortable margins, ballot initiatives revamping the criminal justice system. One proposal (Question 780) downgraded some drug possession and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and placed less emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences and greater emphasis on inmates’ progress in drug treatment and other rehabilitation programs. Another (Question 781) increases the flexibility for counties to channel incarceration costs avoided due to the changes made under Question 780 into drug treatment and community rehabilitation programs.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.