Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A citizen changes his mind

I would like to think that, if I had worked on a campaign that succeeded, and later concluded the measure or person I'd worked for was detrimental to the kind of society I believe in, I'd have the guts to do what Ron Briggs did on Sunday. Briggs is the son of the John Briggs, the proponent of the gay bashing California initiative memorialized in the movie Milk. Though that notorious 1978 measure was defeated and is remembered as a signal victory for gay rights, most of us are less aware of the Briggs family's other initiative that year. That one mandated California's death penalty regimen, now a monument to dysfunction.

Still a staunch Republican conservative (he's an El Dorado Country rancher and elected supervisor), Ron Briggs wants the world to know that his family now thinks that 1978 initiative has created a "monster." He believes it is time to replace the death penalty with sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Writing in the Los Angeles Times he explains:

I cannot think of a single turning point in my thinking on the death penalty. My Catholicism teaches me that all life is precious, and that's certainly part of my viewpoint these days. But what resonates more in my mind is Dad's fondness for saying "facts are stubborn things." With hindsight's 20-20 vision and three decades of obstinate data, it's clear to my family that we created a fiscal monster that's taking a human toll on the very people we wanted to protect.

The ineffective legal beast created by California's death penalty laws costs taxpayers more than $100 million annually and ties up the lives of prosecutors and victims who could be moving on to other things.

We thought our 1978 initiative created a system to support victims' families. It didn't. The only people benefiting today are the lawyers who handle expensive appeals and the criminals who are able to keep their cases alive interminably.

The Briggs death penalty law in California simply does not work.

Had I known then what we do today, I would have pushed for strong life sentences without the possibility of parole. I still believe that society must be protected from the most heinous criminals, and that they don't deserve to ever again be free. But I'd like to see them serve their terms with the general prison population, where they could be required to work and pay restitution into the victims' compensation fund.

There are few "do-overs" in life, especially in politics. With the death penalty, though, 34 years later I have an opportunity to set things right. The Briggs family has decided to endorse the SAFE California campaign, a fall 2012 ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with a punishment of life without the possibility of parole. The state has another chance at real justice. We should embrace it.

The SAFE California act will be on the ballot in November. The state's voters are getting a chance for a "do-over". Click the link to get involved and help us make this momentous course correction.
So I have to ask myself, have there been campaigns about which I've had that kind of change of mind and heart? Nothing among the issues I've worked for jumps to mind. But there have been a few candidates who were disappointments once in office, notably our current President. Despite being a constitutional law professor, he seems as attached to executive power unbound by laws in the national security state as did his predecessor. Not that I won't vote for him again; the alternatives really are worse.

Campaigns are inherently both polarizing and lend themselves to dividing the opposing sides into camps that almost have to believe "we're all right and you are all wrong." That's not inherently a bad thing; picking the best alternative available and pushing for it, then living with the majority's choice, is what citizenship feels like in a big, complex and democratic society. Schemes that try to smooth out the divisions that manifest themselves through "yes" and "no" votes -- like San Francisco's "ranked choice voting"-- just undermine engaged citizenship.

But the corollary to such engaged citizenship has to be continuing to look at the results of the choices we make: did these policies work? After the heat of the moment, can we see other avenues to the social goals that formed our choices? Is this office holder still serving the interests and purposes of a majority? Office holders who abhor such scrutiny are in the wrong business. Democracy doesn't work if we all just go home after an election and forget about it.

Kudos to Ron Briggs for looking honestly at the wrong turn his family and a majority of California's voters took in 1978. That's never easy.

1 comment:

Rain said...

Obama is a long-term thinker. It's possible that a lot of what we want as lefties, he will be working toward in a second term but he knew he had to get to a second term. I agree with you though-- there is no alternative to working for his re-election, as no matter which you look at on the other side, it'd be more wars and frankly the end of civil liberties-- for all their talk of valuing freedom.

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