Gov. Brown's Prison Plan Survives Supreme Court Challenge

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Governor Jerry Brown's plan to reduce the state's prison population will almost certainly make it onto the ballot in November, after surviving a Supreme Court challenge on Monday. The ballot imitative had originally been put forward with a major focus on reforming the juvenile justice system. Amendments by the governor's supporters shifted that focus to the entire prison population.

The California District Attorneys Association sued, arguing that the changes were too extensive to allow the imitative to go forward without new public comment. In a six to one decision, the California Supreme Court rejected that argument on Monday.

From the Just and Rehabilitation Act to the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act

The ballot initiative was originally proposed as the "Justice and Rehabilitation Act" by attorneys Margaret Prinzing and Harry Berezin. The stated intent of the act was to reform California's juvenile and criminal justice systems by, among other things, ending mandatory prosecution of minors 14 and older as adults for certain serious offenses, allowing minors convicted in adult court to move for a juvenile disposition, and altering parole rules for those 23 and younger.

The proposed initiative received no public comment, but while it was being considered, Prinzing and Berezin entered into discussions with the governor and the California District Attorneys Association. The result of those discussions were significant revisions to the act. It was renamed to the "Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act," its focus on juveniles was deemphasized, and the parole changes were extended to all non-violent felons, regardless of age. Many provisions were added, many were deleted.

The Attorney General's office found those changes to be "reasonably germane" to the original and allowed the initiative to move forward to the signature-gathering stage.

The CDAA's Challenge

The CDAA disagreed, however. The changes were too drastic, the organization argued, constituting a major shift in the initiative's purpose. To allow the initiative to go forward would allow the governor to circumvent the normal initiative process and deprive the public of its chance to comment on the proposed changes.

California law allows the legislature to amend initiatives so long as those are "reasonably germane" to the original. The trial court found the original "theme and purpose of the initiative" to be "reform of the juvenile justice system," whereas the amended version focused largely on adults. The governor's amendments went too far, the court ruled.

Reasonably Germane

But the Supreme Court disagreed. Acknowledging that the changes "were, in certain respects, quite extensive" they were nonetheless "reasonably germane to the original theme, purpose, or subject" of the initiative, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority.

Further, the public was not denied its right to comment by the changes, which came after the initiative's public comment period ended. (No comments were ever submitted.) That time is not "a public forum for comments," but rather to allow an initiative's proponents to identify any potential shortcomings and correct them, the court determined, based on legislative history.

Onwards to November

The Supreme Court victory clears one of the final hurdles to the initiative's placement on the November ballot. Governor Brown now simply needs to have the initiative's supporting signatures approved, which is expected to happen soon.

The decision garnered only one dissent. Associate Justice Ming Chin wrote that "Under today's ruling, future initiative proponents can evade the period of public review in the same way the proponents have done here. They merely need to hijack a vaguely similar measure that was in the process of qualifying."

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