The Guy Who Wrote California’s Death Penalty Law Wants It to be Repealed

A gas chamber in CaliforniaIn 1977, the California legislature reinstated the state’s death penalty. A short time later, Ron Briggs helped his father, State Senator John Briggs, write what’s become known as the Briggs Death Penalty Initiative, which upped the number of death-penalty-eligible crimes to 28. California voters passed it, and as a result 13 people have been gassed or dosed on our dime. Now Ron Briggs says his death penalty law “simply doesn’t work.”

Briggs, now a county supervisor for El Dorado County, spoke on KCRW’s Which Way, L.A.? this week to explain why he supports SAFE California’s ballot measure to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. He put aside the complex arguments that America’s modern right has trouble wrapping its collective gourd around (arguments like “killing people is bad”) and focused on a fact that any bag-bedecked tea partier can love: capital punishment wastes crock shits of money.

The proof lies in that number 13. California has executed 13 people since 1978, but the state’s death row population stands at a staggering 723. Those convicts aren’t just killing time (<— hilarious pun). The vast majority of them are waiting for appeals. Death penalty cases as a rule involve more and longer appeals than any others, and those appeals suck money like a blue whale sucks krill. Supervisor Briggs notes that one particular appeal which, as most of them do, resulted in no change to the conviction, cost his county $1.2 million to try. As he puts it, when his county is firing librarians and police officers to save money, it can’t justify that kind of wasteful spending.

Not to mention that that particular convict still has two more appeals yet to come, which the county estimates will take another 12 years. So under current law, his due process should finally come to completion in 2024 — for a crime committed in 1987.

Death penalty cases in California move slower than in any other state, largely because of a law that sends all capital-punishment appeals straight to the California Supreme Court, which has a decade-long backlog of cases. Meanwhile, death row inmates are housed outside of the general prison population, which in turn incurs outside expense. A recent study found that all of the appeals and special housing cost California $184 million more per year than if its death penalty convictions were converted to life in prison without parole. That’s equivalent to about five percent of the total budget for the state judicial branch.

To Supervisor Brigg’s credit, he also notes that the endless appeals process forces victims to face criminals again and again in court, which needlessly prolongs their victimization. Chalk that up to the myriad ethical arguments to oppose the death penalty. Or don’t, and pick one of the 184 million other reasons to vote to repeal capital punishment in California on November 7.

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