Gov. Jerry Brown appeals prison ballot measure ruling

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday asked California’s Supreme Court to stay a judge’s ruling that could stall his proposal to reduce the state’s prison population for two years.

“Unless this court acts, a manifest error by the superior court will keep an initiative off the 2016 ballot that promises to enhance public safety, improve inmate rehabilitation, and avoid the release of prisoners by federal court order,” Robin Johansen, an attorney representing the governor, said in the emergency petition.

The governor acted less than a day after Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang blocked the state attorney general from issuing the documents that would let Brown’s supporters gather the signatures needed to put his initiative on the November ballot.

Unless the high court intervenes, the judge’s ruling could delay until 2018 voters’ consideration of his plan to boost sentencing credits for adult inmates and allow earlier parole for non-violent felons.

Chang ruled that the Democratic governor improperly modified an existing juvenile justice initiative. If her ruling stands, it would force the governor and his supporters to start over by drafting and qualifying a new ballot measure, which proponents say would take too long.

Johansen said each hour that passes without the required title of the initiative and a summary of what it would do being issued by the state attorney general’s office reduces the chances that supporters will be able to gather enough signatures to get the measure on the 2016 ballot.

The state is under a federal order to reduce its prison population, and waiting until 2018 is “not an option,” Johansen said.

Brown’s spokeswoman, Deborah Hoffman, declined comment, saying the filing speaks for itself.

In blocking Brown’s proposal, Chang sided with a lawsuit filed by the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

Schubert referred requests for comment to the association, which did not immediately comment.

James Harrison, an attorney for the original proponents who allowed Brown to alter their measure, said after Wednesday’s ruling that even if Brown’s appeal prevails, it could push the campaign into a costly signature-gathering drive or risk delaying it until 2018 unless the justices act quickly.

The governor, who is termed out of office in 2018, has $24 million in his campaign account that he can spend on political campaigns.

That still might not be enough to swiftly gather the required nearly 586,000 signatures, given the crush of competition from numerous pending ballot initiatives, Harrison said.

Chang ruled that Brown went too far when he amended sweeping amendments on to an existing initiative. That radically changed the focus of the original initiative without allowing for necessary public comment, she said.

Brown amended an existing initiative that would strip prosecutors of their power to decide if juveniles should be tried as adults, leaving that decision to judges. He added amendments last month to increase sentencing credits for adult inmates and allow earlier parole for non-violent felons.

Deputy Attorney General Paul Stein said Brown met the deadline for submitting amendments that reasonably related to the initiative’s original focus, even though it was amended after the end of the public comment period.

The 2014 state law requires 30 days of public comment as a way to improve the initiative process. The same law lets initiative sponsors amend their proposal and lets the state Legislature hold hearings before measures qualify for the ballot.

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