Has Jerry Brown Changed His Views On Crime?


Barry Krisberg

California's governor traditionally declares his intention to sign or veto dozens of bills that have been approved by the legislature during the month of October. Jerry Brown's vetoes this year have got a lot of Californians wondering about whether their governor has changed some of his long-held views on criminal justice.

Last month, for example, Gov. Brown rejected State Bill (SB) 347, which would have created a 10-year ban on weapon ownership for certain people convicted of gun-related crimes. Existing federal and state laws already restrict who may own a gun, but SB 347 would have added three offenses to that list: stealing a gun, receiving a gun as stolen property, and possessing ammunition on school grounds.

While Brown's views on gun control have changed from time to time, the advocates for greater gun regulation were dismayed.

The governor has been a proponent of citizens' rights to purchase and own guns, but he has increasingly endorsed laws that restrict the unfettered marketplace in military-style weapons and has supported some more rigorous background checks. Those supporting SB 347 assumed therefore that Brown would sign the bill if it passed both houses of the legislature, but they misread his thinking.

Brown claimed that SB 347 would “needlessly clutter California's law books by finding new ways to penalize behavior that was already illegal.”

He applied the same reasoning when he also rejected an eclectic set of potential new laws that would have:

  • increased penalties for possession of date-rape drugs;
  • criminalized those who fly drones over schools and prisons;
  • enhanced punishment for illegal dumping; and
  • prohibited the use of bull hooks on circus elephants.

Brown justified his vetoes by declaring, ” Each of these bills creates a new crime—usually by finding a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that was already proscribed.”

The governor noted that the Golden State had more than 5,000 criminal laws “covering almost every conceivable of human misbehavior.” He noted that the prison and jail population had “exploded” and that the state should “pause and reflect” before passing more laws

At various times in his career, Brown, who has served the state as its governor, and attorney general, and as the mayor of Oakland, California, advocated for—or defended—legislation that added new crimes to the penal code, and he has defended the need for tough sentencing policies such as the Three Strikes Law.

A glance at his record suggests that the governor's approach to crime has undergone some significant shifts.

According to the current website of the California Governor's Office, Brown “enacted hundreds of tough anti-crime measures including the “Use a Gun Go to Prison Law and mandatory sentences for rape, the sale of heroin, violent crimes against the elderly, child molestation and selling PCP.”

He claims credit for funding programs designed to apprehend career criminals, and for local gang-suppression programs. For several years, he opposed the federal court orders that required the release of some inmates to release prison crowding (although he eventually negotiated an agreement to meet the judicial mandates).

On the other hand, Brown also has dramatically increased the number of life-sentenced prisoners who received parole, and has given more pardons and grants of clemency that any previous state California executive. He negotiated many reforms of state prison and parole policies that have radically decreased the state prison and parole population, insisting that under Realignment the counties play a much larger role in the management of offenders.

Unlike recent California Governors, Jerry Brown did not oppose ballot measures to abolish capital punishment (Propositions 34); to decriminalize the medical use of marijuana (Proposition 36); to soften the Three Strikes Law (a later Proposition 36); or to reduce the penalties for a wide range of felonies (Proposition 47).

So what do his recent actions tell us about the evolving criminal justice philosophy of one of the country's most well-known public figures?

In many ways, they have reflected the evolving views of the people of his state. Various public opinion polls and recent ballot measures suggest that the vast majority of California voters have shifted from the harsher views expressed in the 1980s and 1990s to a more pragmatic approach.

Brown's emerging views on crime policy also reflect his approach to governance.

The governor campaigned for and won a highly contested ballot measure to raise the taxes paid by the wealthiest Californians. With the exception of his insistence that California maintain a healthy “fiscal rainy day fund,” Brown has embraced very progressive positions on issues such as worker safety protection, pay equity, increasing the minimum wage, police accountability, LGBT rights, and expanding elementary and secondary education opportunities for all students.

He has refused calls to punish law-abiding undocumented workers, and has been especially powerful in his statewide and national advocacy about addressing the threats posed by global warming.

And most recently, in response to the California drought, the governor instituted important new regulations on water conservation.

Some might reasonably ask if Governor Brown's recent veto actions are a harbinger of his further evolved thinking in the future.

This is very pertinent because he is ending his last term of governor in 2018 and might still play a profound role in promoting needed reforms of California's antiquated and overly harsh sentencing laws. Already, law enforcement officials, victims groups and parole officers have tried to persuade him to soften his positions on Justice Realignment or parole.

What happens in California matters. Not just because it is the nation's most populous state, but because it has often been a leader of national developments.

Brown's rejection of further gun regulation will encourage many conservatives concerned about the proliferation of laws—what some call “over-criminalization.” But as the debate about criminal justice heats up this election cycle, reformers around the country may also take heart from the fact that there is little evidence to date that Brown will accede to the pressure of “get-tough-on-crime” voices.

As other states evaluate the recent law changes in California, Jerry Brown's views may take on wider significance beyond the Golden State.

Barry Krisberg is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California Berkeley. He welcomes your comments.

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