The year was 1978, and the California ballot bristled with initiatives for everything from banning gay teachers to cracking down on indoor smoking. Both lost. But one, Proposition 7, sailed through: expanding the state’s death penalty law to make it among the toughest and most far-reaching in the country.
The campaign was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.
Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives…
“At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, watermelons, cherries and (unsuccessfully, so far) black Périgord truffles.
“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it..?’ ”
Try that out on the nutballs now in charge of the Republican Party.
“It’s been a colossal failure,” Mr. Heller said in his Sacramento office. “The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose…”
A report last year found that California was spending $184 million a year on a cottage industry of lawyers, expert witnesses and supersecure prisons to deal with the death row population created by Proposition 7.
“The cost is the most politically neutral argument,” said Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor and one of the authors of the report. “We’ve debated the morality of the death penalty for decades. We’ve tried very hard to focus on the objective cost issue, because that’s something that people who differ on all the other issues can reach a consensus on…”
When he wrote the initiative, Mr. Heller said, he gave no thought to its cost. “I am convinced now that it has never deterred anyone from committing a murder,” he said. “In my mind, I realized what I did was a big mistake.”
I’m as likely as any Old Testament nutball to savor the concept of revenge as a component of justice. But, reality may as well play a part in our legal structure once in a while.
Just as warehousing violent criminals makes sense while incarcerating some kid caught smoking a joint is as stupid as jurisprudence can be, the foolishness of spending several times more than the cost of a life sentence with no opportunity for parole, pardon or commutation for the “morality” of a death sentence offends every intellectual and fiscal sensibility.