Saturday, April 7, 2012

Original Death Penalty Supporters Now Fight for Abolition

Several people sent me this recent New York Times story, which is the perfect example of the kind of cost-centered discourse that has come to dominate American corrections. First, here's the gist of the story.

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.

This story has all the ingredients of humonetarianism: Cost-focused concerns, bipartisanism, and change of heart under the banner of fiscal prudence.

“But it’s not working,” [Briggs] 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?’ ”

Supporters of the death penalty are also willing to concede that the cost argument is the only one that would carry weight in the death penalty debate:

Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said cost “is probably the only argument that has any chance. The people have heard all the other arguments for years, and it has never gotten any traction.”

Props to David Takacs, Colin Wood, and Morris Ratner, for the link.

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