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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gov. Jerry Brown Has a Chance to Usher in Major Prison Reforms in California

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Will Gov. Jerry Brown reform the prisons?
  • Will Gov. Jerry Brown reform the prisons?

With a couple strokes of his pen, Gov. Jerry Brown can significantly alter the way California's prison system works.

Yesterday, the state Senate passed a bill that would give parole opportunities to juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

This week, that body will likely also vote on a bill that would allow journalists to set up interviews with inmates in state prisons. The prison media access bill has passed through the state legislature eight times over the past couple of decades, and has been vetoed at the governor's desk each time.

Brown, who has paroled inmates at a much higher rate than his two predecessors, has yet to take a public stance on either of these bills.

The juvenile parole bill, proposed by Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, would allow juvenile offenders to appeal a life sentence after serving 15 years. If the inmate shows remorse and pursues rehabilitation, a court can grant him a parole hearing after his 25th year. Juveniles convicted of torture or killing a cop would not be eligible. There are currently around 300 lifers who could request a parole opportunity if the bill passes.

Yee, who has worked as a child psychologist, argues that because young people's brains are not yet fully developed, they should have the opportunity to prove they are fit for release.

Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from San Diego, disagreed that juvenile murderers have the potential to rehabilitate:

"This is absolutely outrageous that we are going to release these little psychopaths back onto the street to murder again," he said, according to the L.A. Times. "We're talking about serious crimes where we have young people who are flat-out evil."

The bill passed 21-16 -- the dissent coming from all 14 Republicans as well as two Democrats.

The prison media access legislation might be just as close. California's Department of Corrections opposes the bill, claiming that inmate interviews can "glamorize" criminals and bring back past trauma to victims. Reporters have been barred from scheduling in-person interviews with inmates since 1996. Instead, prison officials allow 15-minute telephone interviews with inmates who have phone access. Even when reporters gain access inside prisons, they can only speak to the inmates they randomly encounter on guided tours. To the Corrections Department, though, "the media already enjoys a wide range of access to prisons and inmates."

Which is just ridiculous.

As This American Life correspondent Nancy Mullane explained in a Sac Bee op-ed last week:

Let's say an inmate has filed a lawsuit against the state, been injured in a riot, has direct knowledge about criminal conduct or has been involved in a high-profile court case. Reporters can only hope that while they are being escorted by a prison public information officer, they will randomly run into the specific inmate they need for a story.

The bill, pushed by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would require that prisons, given advanced notice, allow reporters to interview specific inmates as long as it doesn't "pose an immediate and direct threat to the security of the institution or the physical safety of a member of the public." Journalists would be allowed to bring in cameras, notebooks, and recording equipment.

The prison guards union -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- supports the bill. As do media organizations and civil rights groups. Opposition from the Corrections Department and victims-rights groups has kept previous governors from signing off on the legislation.

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Albert Samaha


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