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

Human Rights

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.

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.

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