Justice Reform Juvenile Justice Parole Policy

Gov. Brown’s Justice Reform Ballot Initiative, TEDxSanQuentin, and Which Way, LA? on LAPD


On Wednesday, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a November ballot initiative that would give judges sole discretion over whether a child defendant is transferred to adult court.

The initiative could have huge implications for teens who come into contact with the justice system. California is one of just 15 states in which prosecutors hold the power to decide whether a kid (as young as 14) will be tried as an adult. Human Rights Watch points out that since 2003, nearly 7,200 of the 10,000 transfers to adult court happened without oversight from a judge.

“A decision to try a youth as an adult is a decision to give up on that young person and deny them the education, treatment, and services the juvenile system provides to help turn their lives around,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, in response to Gov. Brown’s announcement.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in November, kids transferred to adult court have a 3.5 times higher risk of early death than the general population.

The measure would also make it easier for the prison officials to award credits toward early release to low-level offenders who have fulfilled their primary sentences. Inmates would earn credits through educational and rehabilitative efforts and good behavior.

Gov. Brown was joined in his announcement by law enforcement and religious leaders including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, San Diego County DA Bonnie Dumanis, Amador County Chief Probation Officer Mark Bonini, Napa County Chief Probation Officer Mary Butler, and California Catholic Conference of Bishops Deacon Clyde Davis.

When asked if he would finance the measure himself, Brown (who has a stockpile of $24 million in left-over campaign funds) said he would “do whatever it takes.”

The Sacramento Bee’s David Siders has a helpful explanation of the ballot initiative and the systems it seeks to reform. Here’s a clip:

Brown, announcing the measure in a conference call with reporters, said the “determinate sentencing” law he signed when he was governor before “had unintended consequences.”

“And one of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves,” he said, “because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around.”

Though his measure would not change sentencing standards, Brown said “it does recognize the virtue of having a certain measure of indeterminacy in the prison system.”

“The driver of individual incentive, recognizing that there are credits to be earned and there’s parole to be attained, is quite a driver,” he said.


Brown, who helped create the state’s “determinate sentencing” system when he was governor before, has said for years that it should be revisited. In a speech to judges in Sacramento in November, Brown said he didn’t foresee the dramatic impact determinate sentencing would have on the growth of California’s prison population. The policy scaled back judicial discretion in prison sentences.

“The more we can introduce some indeterminacy into the punishment, the more we can incentivize better behavior,” he said last year.

By 2003, when he was mayor of Oakland, prisons had become so crowded that Brown told the Little Hoover Commission the reform he signed turned into an “abysmal failure,” giving inmates facing long, fixed terms little incentive to reform themselves.

“The prisons started building up about the time I was leaving,” Brown said in an interview in 2010. “But they didn’t stop. They just kept on going. We see now that the determinate sentence, which I signed, needs substantial revision.”


Reporters from the Marshall Project, including founder Neil Barsky, visited San Quentin State Prison for two days last week for a TEDxSanQuentin event. (Barsky was one of the outside speakers featured at TEDxSanQuentin.) The Marshall Project team met with locked-up members of the San Quentin News staff, and inmates participating in the progressive prison’s many other educational and rehabilitative programs.

(TEDxSanQuentin took place January 22. The videos of the event have not been posted online. We’ll keep you updated.)

Neil Barsky and TMP’s editor Bill Keller offer a sneak peek at the trip to San Quentin and the TEDx talks. Here are some clips:

What if, instead of building prisons in remote locations, we put them near cities, accessible to family members and to the resources — educational, vocational, therapeutic, recreational, cultural — that are scarce in most prison towns?

What if, instead of walling out the world, we invited in volunteers by the hundreds to help prepare inmates for life outside – to put the correction in “corrections?” What if we offered public tours, during which visitors could chat with prisoners beyond the earshot of guards?

What if we allowed the inmates to publish a newspaper and produce a radio program?

What you’ve just imagined is San Quentin, California’s oldest prison, housing the state’s felonious since 1852.


Because San Quentin is embedded in affluent/liberal Marin Country, and because it has had some progressive wardens, it is rich in programs. The prison has 3,000 volunteers donating time to an incarcerated population of about 3,700. The men can sign up to do Shakespeare, therapy, yoga, meditation, music, newspaper and radio journalism, college courses — even a computer coding program aimed at generating contract work from nearby Silicon Valley and preparing the students for employment when they get out.

Most prisons, fearful of a political backlash if prison seems too comfortable, offer at most some high-school GED classes and manual-labor training. San Quentin, attentive to the reality that upwards of 90 percent of the incarcerated are eventually set free, makes an effort to prepare its residents for a civilized reentry to society. “Like I told my father,” one resident said, “this is like a men’s liberal arts college, except there’s less violence and less drinking.” Also bleaker food options; we shared the standard San Quentin lunch — plastic-wrapped slices of bread, squeeze sacks of peanut butter and jelly, cookies and a piece of fruit.

Research on the results is spotty, but studies of some programs in San Quentin indicate that participants have recidivism rates a fraction of the state average, which is around 60 percent.


Monday’s episode of Which Way, LA? takes a closer look at whether the Los Angeles Police Department’s shift toward community policing has been successful in winning the public’s trust back through efforts like community policing since the Rodney King era.

Producer David Weinberg starts the show with a visit to one of the LAPD’s community policing training sessions, where veteran officer Michael Carradine tells Weinberg that during his early days on the force, he patrolled the Nickerson Gardens housing project, and felt ostracized by fellow officers for treating the residents (including the gang members) like humans. The LAPD has come a long way since then, but there is still quite a bit of room for reform, experts say.

Warren Olney discusses the history and future of Los Angeles policing with author and UCLA professor of history and African American studies, Brenda Stevenson, civil rights attorney Connie Rice, and Joe Domanick, journalist and author of Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.

Take a listen.


After 23 years, this Thursday, KCRW’s Which Way, LA? will air its final episode. In an op-ed for the LA Times, David Lehrer, president of the non-profit Community Advocates, Inc., thanks WWLA? host Warren Olney for serving as an “extraordinary catalyst for our civic self-examination” by teaching “multiple generations of Angelenos how to honestly, civilly and fairly debate contentions issues — and in the process learn about what makes democracy work.” Here’s a clip:

Olney and the program have been a unique keeper of L.A.’s historical record — our triumphs, our crises, our travails and our failures. From gang warfare to the 1992 riots, from water shortages to traffic, from government boondoggles to elections analyses — Olney was there, discussing the issues with his guests thoroughly, fairly and civilly.

But it isn’t simply the chronicling of events that has made “Which Way L.A.?” so special. Even more importantly, the show has been an instrument for people of opposing viewpoints coming together as guests of the show and engaging in a dialogue. By virtue of the show’s format and Olney’s firm, friendly and thoughtful demeanor, they were compelled to express their views without rancor or bile — a true rarity in our era of partisan bickering.

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