Jerry Brown’s Criminal Justice Legacy: ‘It’s Called Hope’

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California Gov. Jerry Brown. Photo by Bob Tilden via Flickr

When California Gov. Jerry Brown’s final term ends next week, he will leave behind a state criminal justice system infused with a new commitment to second chances, a shift away from an era in which tens of thousands were imprisoned with little opportunity to turn their lives around, the Los Angeles Times reports.

“It’s called hope,” Brown told the newspaper. “One hundred fifty thousand young men with zero hope bolsters the gangs, leads to despair, leads to violence and makes the prisons very dangerous.

Many of them, the majority, will get out anyway. And they’ll get out as very wounded human beings.” The governor’s attempt to unwind the old approach contrasts with his legacy from the 1970s. No governor did more to launch the tough-on-crime era, including a seminal law four decades ago that paved the way for strict sentences, even for nonviolent crimes.

See Also: Has Jerry Brown Changed His Views on Crime?

Brown’s decision to change course was driven by legal mandates as much as morality. A key was his reliance on research and data that concluded much of the old thinking on crime and punishment had been wrong.

“He’s really followed the science of criminal justice,” said Jeanne Woodford, a former state corrections secretary. “That’s very refreshing, as opposed to people making decisions based on their worst fears.” Brown supported legislation or ballot measures that downgraded drug crimes, offered some inmates new opportunities for parole and prevented or limited the detention of children and teenagers.

He helped craft a sweeping plan to grant judges greater discretion over California’s bail system. He appointed hundreds of jurists who share his vision of considering options other than lengthy incarceration.

To some, the four-term governor made things worse when taking office in 2011. Critics cite an uptick in violent and property crimes in some communities as evidence that leniency won’t work.

Among  the signature accomplishments during Brown’s term was “justice realignment” –a move to reduce state prison populations, and reform of the state’s “three-strikes” law.


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