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March 6, 2014
Editorial: Ruling balances scales of justice


(March 6 — By the Editorial Board)

Twenty-six years ago, on a statewide ballot overloaded with 29 propositions and a presidential race, California voters approved a measure - Proposition 89 - allowing the governor to reverse decisions of the state parole board.

It's hard to say how much voters mulled over the question, given how many important decisions they made that day and how relatively innocuous it may have seemed to give the state's top elected official veto power over decisions to release dangerous criminals.

That initiative, however, has had real consequences for prisoners. Every governor since then has made use of the veto, resulting in the continued incarceration of many who otherwise would be free. Collectively, they reversed about 70 percent of the parole board recommendations for convicted murderers between 1991 and 2011, according to court documents.

Six years ago, voters were again asked to make a law, with Proposition 9, that affected the lives of prisoners. The Victims' Rights and Protection Act of 2008, or Marsy's Law, made consideration of victims' needs central to the judicial process. Marsy, who was murdered in 1983, was the sister of the billionaire who bankrolled the initiative, Henry Nicholas, co-founder of Broadcom Corp.

The act set forth a number of rules for keeping victims informed of proceedings, allowing them input in the prosecution, protecting them from the accused and requiring restitution, among other things to make their experience less terrible. Part of that included spacing out parole hearings less frequently, from one to three years, to spare victims of heinous crimes and their families from having to relive them too often. But in so doing, the law effectively changed the terms of incarceration for convicts retroactively. The U.S. Constitution, in its "ex post facto" clause, prohibits that.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled in Gilman v. Brown that both propositions are unconstitutional as applied to people who were convicted before the laws passed.

Good. Although this was a long time coming, it rights a little of the wrong committed by the two voter-passed laws that tipped the scales of justice too far to one side.

The Sacramento Bee's editorial board, like virtually every editorial board in the state, recommended a "no" vote for Proposition 9, saying it would make it harder to control prison costs and would inevitably compound conditions in the state's overcrowded prisons. That's exactly what has happened in California, which is now under a federal court order to reduce its prison population.

This ruling, if it stands, could help a little. It will allow thousands of prisoners convicted before November 2008 to have parole board hearings this year. If those convicted before November 1988 are granted parole, the ruling bars the governor from overturning the decision.

Instead of a reason for alarm, this ruling will allow lawmakers some room to make wiser choices about how to depopulate the state's prisons. Parole boards review cases carefully and aren't going to release a convict who seems likely to endanger the public.

Besides, these two laws changed the rules after sentencing. That's not fair or appropriate for a nation of laws.