By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday threw his support behind a proposal to give judges greater discretion on whether minors should be tried as adults in California courts.
The measure, which would go before voters in November if enough signatures are gathered to put it on the ballot, would undo a provision of state law that allows juveniles as young as 14 to be tried as adults for numerous serious crimes - including murder, rape and torture - without the approval of a judge.
"It's an important step," said Brown, a Democrat, in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "It puts a juvenile court judge in the position of viewing in totality whether a juvenile is fit to be tried as an adult."
Elizabeth Calvin, senior children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, said the changes to the way juveniles are handled in the court system would be dramatic if the measure passes.
"This is about putting the decision back in the hands of a judge and giving a judge the tools to really examine the big picture, the seriousness of the crime and what else is going on in that child’s life," Calvin said.
Since 2003, more than 10,000 minors have been tried as adults in California - nearly three-quarters of them in cases in which a judge had no say, Calvin said.
The proposal would also set up a process for making some inmates accused of non-violent crimes eligible for parole earlier, and allow them to earn credits toward parole by engaging in good behavior.
Brown said the measure would help ease overcrowding in the state's massive prison system.
He said the state's mandatory sentencing system for many crimes had taken discretion away from judges and ultimately contributed to recidivism by providing inmates with little incentive for rehabilitation.
Brown signed the law that introduced mandatory sentencing during a previous stint as governor from 1975 to 1983, but has since criticized the practice.
"This will dramatically improve the behavior of inmates and set them on a path that would make them be ready to be good citizens when they go back out in the world," Brown said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Leslie Adler)