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California governor's initiative passes, will allow earlier paroles

Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters after casting his mail in ballot on Election Day in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Voters approved a proposition Tuesday giving California prison officials more say in the release of prisoners.

Proposition 57 marks a bid by Gov. Jerry Brown to reduce the state prison population and restore balance to the legal code that he says has become overburdened with get-tough policies.

The measure also strips prosecutors of the power to decide when juveniles should be tried as adults and leaves those decisions to judges.

It won with 65 percent of the vote.

Current law lets judges instead of parole boards determine when most convicts should be released, but Brown said judges are often bound by mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing enhancements and myriad other laws imposed by state lawmakers and voters.

Proposition 57 will allow inmates to seek earlier parole hearings unless they have been convicted of about two dozen crimes classified as violent.

They can seek parole after completing their base prison term, without the enhancements that can add years to sentences for things such as being a repeat offender or gang member, or using a gun during a crime.

Corrections officials also will be able to give earlier release credits to inmates convicted of violent crimes.

Law enforcement officials said the initiative gives bureaucrats too much power.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse, who co-chaired the No on 57 campaign, called it "a dangerous measure that will put Californians and our communities at serious risk."

"For the first time in two decades, crime in California is going up — and now Prop 57 will allow prisoners convicted for domestic violence, human trafficking, assault with a deadly weapon and other violent crimes to be eligible for early release," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, another co-chair, added in a statement.

An estimated quarter of California's nearly 130,000 prison inmates could seek earlier parole under the measure.

Opponents cited the case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, whose sexual assault of an unconscious woman was considered nonviolent under state law. His six-month jail sentence prompted Brown to sign two new laws in September, one requiring longer sentences and the other permitting victims to say in court that they were raped, even if the attack doesn't meet the technical legal definition.

Brown said the changes in Proposition 57 are needed to keep the state's prison population below the level set by federal judges. He also is trying to restore flexibility that he said has been lacking since he signed the state's current sentencing law in 1977 during his first stint as governor.

"The problems that I create, I can clean up," Brown said.

Top financial backers of the initiative include hedge fund billionaire and possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate Tom Steyer, who gave $1.5 million; Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who gave $1 million; and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who contributed nearly $1 million.

Law enforcement officials said the measure is too much, too soon, given a recent increase in crime rates and several other changes that substantially reduced the state prison population.

Lower-level felons now serve their sentences in county lockups instead of state penitentiaries under a 2011 law. California voters softened the "three strikes" career criminal law in 2012 and lowered penalties for some drug and property crimes in 2014.

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