Soapbox

Death penalty is destructive to California

Proposition 62 on the November ballot would replace California’s death penalty with a punishment that brings swift and certain justice: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Proposition 62 on the November ballot would replace California’s death penalty with a punishment that brings swift and certain justice: life in prison without the possibility of parole. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

In 1978, my family wrote and sponsored the ballot initiative that expanded the death penalty back to California. We worked tirelessly to pass the initiative, putting in long days gathering signatures and late nights stuffing envelopes. Instituting the death penalty, we thought, would save Californians money, bring safety to our communities and provide closure to victims’ families.

We could not have been more wrong.

Though I was once California’s biggest proponent of the death penalty, I now feel compelled to admit the policy is destructive to our great state. What we didn’t know then is that the death penalty would become an industry that benefits only attorneys and criminals, and no one else. It’s an extreme expense to taxpayers, does not make our communities safer and fails to deliver the justice it promised.

Since the initiative became law, California taxpayers have unknowingly spent more than $5 billion to maintain a death row that now houses 747 convicted criminals. During this time, only 13 people have been put to death, at an eye-popping price tag of $384 million per execution.

Beyond its economic burden, the death penalty in California is a myth.

Not a single individual has been executed in the past 10 years because of many problems. An exhaustive appeals process, guaranteed by our Constitution, can drag on for decades. Meanwhile, death row inmates are kept in private cells, don’t have to work and are afforded privileges they would not be getting in the general prison population.

Because of all this, the death penalty costs taxpayers 18 times more than a sentence of life in prison. So why are Californians paying for an exorbitant capital punishment program that does not accomplish justice?

The constitutionally mandated appeals keep the wounds of victims’ families open. The death penalty does not make our communities any safer, either. New studies conclusively show that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. My family and I believed the death penalty would serve as the ultimate warning to criminals, but nearly 40 years of evidence proves it does not work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still as tough on crime as I’ve ever been. I firmly believe those who committed the most heinous acts should do the hardest of time and never again see the light of day. But it’s time to face facts: the ultimate punishment has become the ultimate failed government program.

Fortunately, we now have the chance to deliver real justice. The Justice That Works Act – Proposition 62 on the November ballot – would replace the death penalty with a punishment that brings swift and certain justice: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Instead of paying for endless appeals, we would lock up the worst criminals and throw away the key forever. It would also force inmates to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families while saving California taxpayers $150 million annually – money that could go to programs that can prevent crime.

Another initiative on the ballot – Proposition 66 – promises to fix the death penalty by hiring more attorneys. But do not be deceived. It’s a sloppy initiative that will make things worse.

Every attempt to fix the death penalty over the past 40 years has only made it slower and more expensive, wasting resources on criminals, attorneys and a bloated bureaucracy.

The only real solution is to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

Like my family, California thought expanding the death penalty initiative was the right thing to do in 1978. We were wrong. Now as a state, we have the chance to end the wasteful program and maintain our commitment to tough justice by passing Proposition 62.

Ron Briggs is a former supervisor of El Dorado County. Contact him at ronvbriggs@gmail.com.

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