Re-thinking mandatory sentencing and the death penalty proceeds across the U.S., as states face prison overcrowding and unsustainable costs of incarceration.
On April 7, the New York Times ran a front-page story about how key backers of the 1978 initiative that expanded the death penalty in California, including Sacramento attorney Donald Heller, now support a November 2012 initiative to abolish capital punishment in that state. (Blogger John Balazs, an attorney in Sacramento, California, specializing in criminal defense, commented on the legislators’ change of heart at the Eastern District of California Blog.)
The 1978 campaign to expand the California Death Penalty 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 at the time, and written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.
(Many teachers and supporters of LGBT rights will recognize John V. Briggs’ name in connection with the infamously homophobic 1978 Briggs Initiative — Proposition 6 — which would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California’s public schools. Opposed by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, “Prop 6” was not passed. It is notable that politicians as diverse as Reagan, Gerald Ford, and (at the end of the campaign) then-president Jimmy Carter all opposed the initiative.)
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. Two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Donald Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.
Partly, they changed their minds for moral reasons. But they also have a political argument to make:
“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, now 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, 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?’ ”
“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.”