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Governor Wants More Reforms For California’s Prison System

California Governor Jerry Brown talks about the evolving state prison system ...

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: California Governor Jerry Brown talks about the evolving state prison system at a San Diego forum, Sept. 1, 2017.

California Gov. Jerry Brown took the stage just after the state prison industry authority made a pitch to a room full of employers to hire trained ex-convicts.

Those prisoner advocates argue a job is key to keeping inmates from going back to prison. Keeping people from reoffending is key to keeping prison populations low.

A number of factors have conspired to swell the state's prison population. California built more prisons and mandatory sentences help to quickly fill them. Judges lost their sentencing flexibility and prisoners could not reduce a mandatory sentence with good behavior.

"A determinant sentence gives no reward for turning your life around. If you, by your behavior, can alter your sentence by years, that's an incentive to avoid the gangs, to avoid the dope, to avoid violence and shape up and take programs. That is absent for too long in our prisons," Brown said.

The state's prison population swelled as tough on crime laws passed by the legislature took effect.

A first degree murder conviction during the governor's first term carried a 10-year to life prison term. Now first degree murder is a 59-year to life sentence.

Brown called the sentencing rules good intentions to protect society by locking away the danger. However, the governor thinks that backfired as prison inmates were forced into overcrowded jails for longer periods of time. Prisoners actually became more dangerous, according to Brown.

"I think we can find a middle point of wisdom and public safety and we can make the place better," Brown said. "To make it better, we need your help for the jobs. We need the training in the prison. We need the correctional officers to understand their job is not to treat people like animals, but to treat them like children of God as they are. That's the way we've got to treat them."

The prison population swelled to more than 170,000 when Brown started his second stint as governor — 35,000 are serving life terms and many others are serving long mandatory sentences.

But the Supreme Court intervened in 2011 and ordered the state to reduce the number of people behind bars. That happened over a three-year period, but not everyone was pleased with the results.

"It worked, the state prison system came down from about 170,000 to about 130,000. But consequently, my jail population went from about 4,000 to 6,000 and that was pretty much the case all over the state of California," said Bill Gore, San Diego County Sheriff.

Creating relevant programs for incarcerated individuals, according to Gore, is an important part of the effort to keep people from reoffending. Drug education and job training are two approaches that work, Gore said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown gave a spirited defense of efforts to reform the state's prison system at a conference being held in San Diego Friday.

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