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Brown sues to save sentencing laws
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown sued Thursday to protect one of his signature actions in office, a voter-approved measure that allows most prison inmates to seek earlier release and participate in rehabilitation programs.

His administration filed a lawsuit challenging a pending 2020 initiative that seeks to toughen criminal penalties as part of an effort to roll back reforms adopted by voters within the past decade.

Brown’s lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court contends the measure lacked enough valid signatures to overturn a previously approved constitutional amendment.

County officials and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla certified the signatures in July but said they were submitted too late to qualify for last month’s election. The lawsuit names Padilla and the ballot measure’s official proponent, Nina Salarno Besselman, president of the advocacy group Crime Victims United.

Padilla said the measure exceeded the required roughly 366,000 valid signatures, equal to 5 percent of votes cast for governor in 2014. Brown’s lawsuit says he used the wrong threshold. It says changing the state constitution requires 8 percent, or more than 585,400 signatures.

That makes the pending initiative more than 150,000 signatures short, the lawsuit says.

“He’s wrong,” responded Jeff Flint, a spokesman for the campaign backing the measure. He predicted a judge will be reluctant to reject a measure that already has qualified for the ballot.

“The secretary of state told us how many signatures are required and that’s how many we collected,” Flint said.

Padilla’s spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The measure would reverse reforms adopted by voters through Proposition 47 in 2014 and Proposition 57 in 2016.

Proposition 57 allows most inmates to seek earlier paroles, while Proposition 47 reduced some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The combination has helped keep California’s inmate population below a population cap set by federal judges.

Corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters said the measure gives corrections and parole officials broad discretion “to protect our communities and fashion a rational system of rehabilitation and punishment. This new initiative unlawfully seeks to supplant the department’s constitutional authority to implement these critical reforms to our criminal justice system.”

The pending initiative would shorten the list of crimes that qualify for earlier parole and change some theft crimes from misdemeanors back to felonies. It would also increase the number of crimes where DNA is collected, a list that was limited when some crimes went from felonies to misdemeanors.

Those supporting the tougher penalties say easing criminal penalties has increased the number of dangerous criminals on the streets, while those backing the changes say they have helped reduce mass incarceration and rehabilitate convicted criminals.