Jerry Brown Appoints a Lot of Public Defenders to the Bench

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jerry Brown has been appointing a lot of judges with backgrounds as public defenders, and that has a tendency to lead to less harsh sentencing policies. It's just one of the major hallmarks of his governing style which has generally emphasized a gentler stance on criminal punishment.

Though Brown's judicial appointments get less attention than his pushes for prisoner realignment and proposal to let thousands of non-violent offenders qualify for early parole, they will have as strong if not a stronger impact on criminal justice in the Golden State.

A Gentler Approach

During the 90s and early 2000s, California rode a cultural and public opinion wave that emphasized being "tough on crime," which many believe was instrumental in stuffing California's prisons to the brim with inmates. Eventually, the situation got so bad that it led to a federal court order to reduce the inmate population. Since his third term started in 2010, 26 percent of Brown appointments have some public defender background in their CVs.

General Approval

Michael Ogul, the President of California's Public Defenders Association, seems to like the shift to appointing judges with public defender experience. A more diverse system will lead to more balance in criminal justice, he argues.

He has been practicing law for thirty-five years and it has been his observation that once attorneys hit the bench, it is difficult for them to separate their view of the law from perspective and vantage points they had when they practiced law as prosecutors. In fact, judges might even feel inclined to push for harsher sentencing.

But Ogul thinks that Brown's appointments might present an opportunity for more balanced view's of judges who are less closed off and more open minded. Judges who used to be prosecutors generally used to too easily dismiss the totality of the evidence or the defendant's circumstances. But under Jerry Brown's leadership, "it seems like there are a higher percentage of that frame of mind ... than in any other administration."

Less Than Enthusiastic

People for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation were noticeably less enthusiastic with the revelation of Brown's appointments. They observe that Brown has appointed an "incredible amount of activist judges" who've been very favorable to defendants. But Brown has generally stood for the idea that judges need not necessarily come from a prosecutorial background -- nor should they.

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