Beyond The County: Gov. Brown’s measure on crime sentencing, Bullet train costs less — longer timeline
Governor proposes ballot measure on criminal sentences
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest attempt to reduce the state prison population is a ballot initiative unveiled Wednesday that aims to free certain felons earlier and have fewer juveniles tried as adults.
If California voters approve it in November, the measure would increase sentencing credits for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs, the Democratic governor said.
The proposal would also allow non-violent felons to seek parole after they have completed their base sentences and require judges instead of prosecutors to decide if juveniles should be tried in adult court.
“This affects thousands of inmates and it is significant,” Brown said on a conference call, backed by law enforcement officials and a representative of the Catholic church where Brown was once a seminarian.
It would alter the framework he helped create when he was governor in the 1970s and 1980s, one that he said has become too “mechanical” with rigidly prescribed sentences and a “crazy quilt of many different credits” that help determine when inmates are released into society.
The current system has produced unintended consequences, he said, including the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves.
Some law enforcement officials were immediately skeptical, while reform advocates were jubilant, saying it would encourage prisoners to complete rehabilitation programs in hopes of obtaining earlier release.
“Sheriffs are likely to have concerns,” said California State Sheriffs’ Association spokesman Cory Salzillo, though he said the group will study the proposal.
But Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis joined Brown on the conference call, along with representatives of the Chief Probation Officers of California.
California currently keeps “the wrong people incarcerated for the wrong period of time,” said Beck. “I think that this will effectively open up bed space for those who richly deserve to be there.”
Dumanis said the changes would encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs that would make prisons and communities safer, where under current law “they get credit for breathing.”
Brown said the proposals build on federal court orders requiring California to reduce its prison population.
The governor, who is termed out of office in 2018, has $24 million in his campaign account that he can spend on political campaigns. He refused to say if he would use it for this campaign, citing the legal separation between government and politics.
Brown’s plan would allow non-violent felons to seek parole after they have completed their base sentences, without enhancements for things such as gang involvement or firearms possession that can add years to a prison term. That is expected to make about 7,000 of the more than 127,000 inmates immediately eligible for parole hearings, according to those briefed on the governor’s plan.
Stanford Law professor Joan Petersilia said about 20,000 inmates are currently serving time for drug or property crimes and are the most likely candidates.
It also would require judges, instead of prosecutors, to decide if juveniles should be tried in adult court. Prosecutors currently decide each year to send about 600 juveniles to adult courts for trial.
That gives them “an enormous amount of power” that should be reserved for impartial judges, said Lizzie Buchen, an advocate with the reform group Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
But she was skeptical of giving increased discretion to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to award more sentencing credits. The department already has that authority and hasn’t done enough with it, she said, while Brown’s entire proposal should also be applied to violent and serious offenders.
Brown said he considered including violent and serious felons, but “it became a nonstarter” in discussions with law enforcement officials.
The initiative that Brown is proposing would further reduce the state’s prison population, which is under a cap ordered by a panel of three federal judges with backing from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state is currently under the headcount limit thanks in part to voter-approved ballot measures that reduced penalties for career criminals and those convicted of certain drug and property crimes. But that population is expected to grow again, and the state is making do now by sending inmates to out-of-state prisons and keeping them in rundown facilities within California.
Lawmakers split on the proposal.
“Weakening the criminal justice system will only increase the victimization of California citizens,” state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who previously headed the state parole board, said in a statement.
But Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said Brown’s proposal tracks a national movement to reduce mass incarceration and could free up funds for education, health care and other voter priorities.
“We’ve had a mammoth prison system sucking up the money that could go to those things,” she said.
Clinton presses for debate before New Hampshire primary
ADEL, Iowa — Hillary Clinton pressed the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday to add a presidential debate before next month’s New Hampshire primary, seeking another high-profile exchange with rival Bernie Sanders.
The push by Clinton for more debates — and Sanders’ resistance to adding another forum — underscores his strength in Iowa and New Hampshire and the heightened concern within Clinton’s team that she could lose both of the first early voting states.
Clinton is trailing Sanders in New Hampshire and locked in a tight contest in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, raising the possibility that the Democratic front-runner could lose the first two presidential contests. Adding another debate before New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary would give her a large television audience that might help her reach undecided voters.
“I am, you know, anxious if we can get something set up to be able to be there. So let’s try to make it happen,” Clinton said in a phone interview with MSNBC, which announced the new debate with the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper.
Clinton said she wanted DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to approve the debate and for Sanders to join her. But both have resisted.
Amy Dacey, the DNC’s chief executive officer, said on Twitter earlier Wednesday that “Democrats have a debate schedule, and we’re sticking to it.”
Sanders’ campaign has said it has no plans to participate because the DNC hasn’t sanctioned the proposed debate. The Vermont senator’s campaign has warned it could jeopardize their ability to participate in upcoming debates scheduled in Wisconsin and Florida.
Bullet train chairman projects lower cost, longer timeline
SACRAMENTO — The chairman of the board that oversees California’s high-speed rail project said Wednesday that the next projection will likely lower the cost of building the train route from the current $68 billion, but he is less confident about its current predictions for how quickly the system can be built.
Board Chairman Dan Richard and other officials were called to testify at an Assembly hearing examining the project’s cost projections and other concerns raised by lawmakers.
“There are a range of uncertainties here, so I can’t look you in the eye and tell you it will be $68 billion. I will tell you this: When you see our new business plan, the number’s going to be less than $68 billion,” Richard told a Republican lawmaker who has been critical of the project.
“I’m more confident about the dollars, sir, than about the time. It may take us a little longer to do this than we said,” Richard added.
The 2014 business plan said the first 520-mile phase linking the San Francisco Bay Area to greater Los Angeles would be finished in 2028, but construction has been beset by delays in acquiring land needed for the first segment in the Central Valley and by slow-going environmental approvals.
The head of an independent review group tasked with overseeing the rail agency’s planning said even though it considers California’s projections “state of the art,” no one really knows how much the rail system will end up costing.
“No one should tell you now that the number is going to be 67 or 43 or anything like that. Nobody knows,” said Louis Thompson, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group. “There is a range of variation and we have to understand that that’s what we’re working with.”
Obama honors 4 who protected Jews during Holocaust
WASHINGTON — As he honored four people on Wednesday for risking their lives to protect Jews, President Barack Obama warned that anti-Semitism is on the rise and that an attack on any faith is an attack on all faiths.
Obama spoke Wednesday evening at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the first sitting president to speak at the embassy. He was introduced at the event by Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director of the Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” and the founder of a Holocaust history foundation.
“Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give in to a base desire to find someone else, someone different, to blame for our struggles,” Obama said. “So here tonight we must confront the reality that around the world anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it.”
The United Nations has designated Wednesday as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945. Six million Jews were killed by Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.
Recognized posthumously for protecting Jews from harm during the Holocaust were Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee; Lois Gunden of Goshen, Indiana; and Polish citizens Walery and Maryla Zbijewski of Warsaw. The honors were bestowed by Yad Vashem, the world’s Holocaust education and research center, based in Jerusalem.
Each was designated Righteous Among the Nations, an official title awarded by Yad Vashem on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Obama said the Holocaust is unique, “a crime without parallel in history,” but he also sought to extend his concerns about confronting intolerance toward other faiths as well.
“It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms, and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics,” he said. “It means heeding the lesson repeated so often in the Torah: To welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers, too.”
Edmonds, a master sergeant, participated in the landing of U.S. forces in Europe and was taken prisoner by the Germans. When the Germans ordered all Jewish prisoners of war to report, Edmonds defied the order by figuring out how to keep the Jewish POWs from being singled out for persecution. “We are all Jews,” he told the Germans.
Gunden, a French teacher, established a children’s home in southern France that became a haven for children, including Jews she helped smuggle out of a nearby internment camp. She protected the children when French police showed up at the home.
The Zbijewskis hid a Jewish child in their Warsaw home until the girl’s mother could take her back.
In televised remarks during the ceremony, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel remained indebted to those being honored because of the Jewish soldiers and children saved by their bravery. He also praised the U.S. and said there was an unbreakable bond between the two countries.
— Associated Press
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