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What Gives? California Gov. Jerry Brown Lines Up With NRA and Prison-Industrial Complex

The only explanation for Brown’s maddening decisions is that he's positioning himself for re-election in November 2014.

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Brown’s statements reveal that he has cast his lot with the sheriffs, prosecutors, police chiefs, county executives, probation officers, victim advocates and private prison firms. The opposing side are state legislators who are fed up with unduly harsh jail conditions and sentences. These include advocacy groups such as the ACLU of California, the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Council of La Raza, the California NAACP, the California Public Defenders Association, and others who back meaningful sentencing reform and cutting California’s prison spending.

This insider-outsider schism can be seen in Brown’s veto message, which conspicuously omits the legislature as one of the “necessary parties” in criminal justice reform.

“By vetoing SB 649, Gov. Brown has thwarted the will of the voters and their elected representatives, rejecting a modest reform that would have helped roll back some of the overly harsh penalities in our state that continue to drive this mass incarceration crisis,” Margaret Dooley-Sammuli wrote on the ACLU of California's blog.

“California voters and the Legislature recognize the urgent need to re-evaluate our sentencing laws and enact smart reforms, especially for low-level non-violent drug crimes, to reduce the state’s reliance on incarceration and to free up limited resources for the sorts of community-based treatment, education and job-training programs proven to reduce crime and create safe and healthy communities,” she continued. “California knows from experience that lengthly jail sentences for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use just makes things worse—wasted lives, overcrowded jails, and devastating budget deficits.”

The only explanation for Brown’s maddening vetoes is that he is obviously positioning himself for re-election in November 2014. It doesn’t matter that his state has Democratic majorities in its Assembly and Senate. There are still institutional interests that run the prison system and Brown is lining up on their side, not on the side of legislators and advocates who are calling for small practical steps.

If you want to see how Brown is charting a careful course to show he is not beholden either to the political right or the left, look at the list of gun bills he signed and vetoed, as well as the other bills that he has accepted and rejected in the past week. This litany is a mix of political and practical considerations, which is what always emerges as elected officials position themselves for their future.

It’s tragic that a casualty of Brown’s political calculations was a modest but real step forward to inject some sanity into the way non-violent drug offenses are handled by the state’s criminal justice system.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).