California Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Governor’s Prison Reform Plan Reaches Ballot

California Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Governor’s Prison Reform Plan Reaches Ballot

A proposed ballot measure launched by Calif. Gov. Edmund G. ‘Jerry’ Brown to amend so-called ‘determinate’ sentencing rules would need to gather nearly 600,000 valid signatures from state voters to reach the November ballot.

Brown’s proposed ballot initiative, introduced in late January, would let the state’s voters decide on a package of proposed criminal law and sentencing changes. One significant part of the amended ‘Justice and Rehabilitation Act’ would remove numerous non-violent crimes from the 1976 fixed-sentence law that Brown helped make law during his first term as governor.

Brown, like other governors in the state, is facing court orders to reduce the state’s prison population. A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a federal appeals court ruling has found the state’s high and growing number of prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment protections. Brown estimated that could make up to 7,000 inmates eligible to seek parole.

A new obstacle recently arose, however, when a Superior Court judge in Sacramento, hearing a challenge filed by the California District Attorneys Association, ruled that Attorney General Kamala Harris should not have allowed the juvenile justice initiative to be revised so extensively without making a further review. The judge also issued an order against backers of the revised initiative collecting signatures for it.

The governor quickly responded to the setback by filing an 87-page appeal of that order to the California Supreme Court. The appeal pointedly noted that California was under a federal court mandate to fix prison overcrowding, which meant that to be effective, the initiative would have to reach the state’s voters in 2016. The appeal by the governor further argued there would be “great public harm” if voters could not consider the initiative’s proposed changes until the next general election in 2018.

Strengthening his case, a panel of the federal appeals court that originally ordered a reduction in California’s prison population issued a statement observing the state’s prison population was again on the rise, and noting the state’s legal obligation to take durable steps to address the problem.

The state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the validity of Brown’s initiative package, did allow its backers to begin collecting voter signatures while the state’s high court considers the legal challenge to it, which is also expected to be a major ruling on revisions made in 2014 to California’s law on the ballot initiative process.

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, and