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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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California Gov. Jerry Brown has killed one of the most common-sense criminal justice reforms to come from the state legislature in years—lessening charges for possessing illegal drugs—in what looks like positioning for a 2014 re-election bid.

“Today is a frustrating day in California,” wrote Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, a criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the state’s ACLU. “The coalition of organizations and elected leaders that backed SB 649 is not giving up on sentencing reform.”

On Saturday, the Democratic governor vetoed a bill that would have given discretion to prosecutors to downgrade drug charges for possession of pot, opiates, cocaine and some hallucinogens to a misdemeanor, removing the lifelong stigma of felony charges, and keeping users out of the state’s overcrowded prisons by directing them to other care.     

“We are going to examine in detail California’s criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure,” Brown’s veto message said. “We will do so with the full participation of all necessary parties, including law enforcement, local government, courts and treatment providers. There will be appropriate time to evalaute our existing drug laws.”

Brown’s veto appears to be part of a pattern in recent days as he has plowed through scores of bills that must be signed into law or vetoed. Taken together, they show Brown keeping a calculated arms’ length from legislative reformers while embracing powerful instititions and lobbies.

The drug charge veto followed another anger-raising veto last week that would have banned future sales of most semi-automatic rifles with detachable ammunition magazines.

“I believe aggressive action is precisely what’s needed to reduce the carnage in our communities, and to counter the equally aggressive action by the gun industry,” said Democratic Senate president pro tem Darrell Steinberg, who proposed the bill after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last December.

Brown “will have blood on his hands,” said Paul Song, executive chairman of the Courage Campaign, which supported a package of 18 gun control bills, of which Brown signed 11 into law. Song told the Associated Press that “Brown appeared to be trying to defuse a possible campaign issue as he runs for re-election next year.”

The gun control bills that Brown signed into law closed loopholes in the legal structure that are already in place, from expanding training requirements and background checks for buyers, to making it illegal to buy the materials to convert simpler rifles into assault-style weapons. These new laws also limit who can buy assault-style guns and require state-licensed psychotherapists to tell police if clients threaten violence.

Tellingly, Brown was praised by the NRA’s West Coast lawyer for vetoing Steinberg’s bill. He was also slammed by Gun Owners of California for signing into law the bills that he did. This praise and blame is consistent with the Courage Campaign’s re-election bid reading of Brown’s veto of the most far-reaching gun control bills. But it is also a nasty and disrespectful rebuke to legislators who were gutsy enough to pass the law.

Brown’s apparent disregard of the legislature was also seen in the drug charges bill, where he appears to be pandering to one of the most entrenched institutions in the state, the prison industry: from the union representing prison guards; to all the prosecutors, police officers and victims' groups; to the corporations seeking privatized prisons.

California’s prison system is a nightmare of overcrowding and draconian conditions that has repeatedly prompted federal courts to order the state to reduce prisoner populations. The system has slowly evolved into an entrenched mess. Brown and the state’s prison industry say they are working on a grand plan to reform the machinery that has ensnared too many people for non-violent offenses.