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Gov. Brown Gives Clemency to 250 People in Attempt to Right Old Wrongs

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In one of his last moves in his last of four terms as California governor, Jerry Brown granted clemency on Christmas Eve to 250 people throughout the state – 35 are from here in the Bay Area. These second chances come in the form of full pardons or commutations, but either way, hundreds of current or former inmates now have hope where there was none before.

As the Sacramento Bee points out, Brown has now granted clemency to more people than any of the eight prior governors, largely motivated by a desire to right his own wrongs. When he was a much younger and less refined California governor in 1976, he signed minimum sentencing into law, which helped balloon the state’s incarceration rates. Four decades later, Brown is trying to clean up a problem of his own making.

Governor Jerry Brown in 1976. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker

In that vein, the governor signed a bill in September that put an end to five-year sentence enhancements that were once tacked on for each prior serious felony conviction. Brown’s tone has changed significantly with age and and political seasoning – he now speaks of reform and actual rehabilitation, which is difficult to achieve in prison settings without the incentive of hope.

When Brown spoke to a group of crime victim survivors during a conference in 2016, he explained that he has seen the err and consequences of his prior decisions and assured them that “help is on the way.” In that discussion, he acknowledged that when we throw away the key and deny prisoners any chance of improving their situations, we only make matters worse, breed more criminals from within those concrete walls and strengthen prison gang affiliations.

“But if you can get parole, or you can earn credits … for going home earlier, then you have a power over your life,” Brown said. “You can take charge. And learning how to take control of your life is exactly what we need people to do.”

Monday night’s mass clemency announcement follows through on some of that promise; however, the California Supreme Court was reluctant to grant the governor’s request in every case and have rejected a total of seven in recent weeks, citing a perceived “abuse of power.” The rejections are highly unusual – courts have not denied a gubernatorial clemency request in over 50 years. The last rejection came just hours before the list was made public when the court denied Kenny Lee a possibility of parole after serving 19 years for the murder of a cab driver in 1992.

Of the people that made it to the governor’s official clemency order on Monday, 143 were pardoned and 131 people had their sentences commuted, meaning they will now be able to request parole hearings or further evidentiary testing related to their cases. The possibility of further DNA testing in the Kevin Cooper case, who claims he was framed for a 1983 quadruple murder in Chino Hills, has caught national attention.

Kevin Cooper listens during his preliminary hearing in Ontario in November 1983 for the murders in Chino Hills in June of 1983.
(Walter Richard Weis / Staff Photographer)

Most come to this point after years of good behavior and personal, family and legal appeals. The gift of forgiveness was given to people throughout the state, many for those convicted of drug-related charges, including one woman who got the call Monday night. Heather Burnett lost everything in the recent Camp Fire and her lingering legal record and all that implies would only make it harder for she and her family to recover from the devastation. After her conviction, she went back to college and focused on addiction studies and has been a counselor since 2004 – Brown’s pardon now allows her to move through life based on her merits and not on her past.

Notably, the outgoing governor denied the clemency request for Napoleon Brown, Mayor London Breed’s brother who is serving a 42-year term for manslaughter and other related convictions stemming from a 2000 incident that ultimately led to the killing of 25-year-old Lenties White.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.