Why Conservatives Like Bill O’Reilly and Me Support Proposition 34

Ron Briggs
El Dorado County Supervisor

Bill O’Reilly is the newest endorser of Proposition 34, the initiative that will replace the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole and make inmates work and pay restitution (rather than sit in private cells without doing anything, as they now do).

It might be surprising to some that O’Reilly, a political commentator on Fox News, a national leader among traditional thinkers, supports Prop 34. But a look at California’s death penalty shows why: California’s death penalty is simply a fiscal disaster that coddles criminals, enriches lawyers, and hurts victims.

Much like O’Reilly, I used to support and even champion the death penalty. In 1978, my father, Senator John Briggs, proposed an initiative to expand California’s death penalty and I proudly worked on the campaign. The voters passed the Briggs Death Penalty Initiative by an overwhelming margin. We were sure we were helping victims and we didn’t pause when the Legislative Analyst Office said the fiscal impacts of the initiative were “unknown.” It seemed obvious: the death penalty would cost less than life in prison without parole.

We were wrong.

California taxpayers have spent $4 billion since 1978 on 13 executions. That works out to about $308 million per execution. In that time, we have sentenced over 900 people to death. Nearly 800 of them (727) still sit on death row while 84 have died from old age, suicide or other causes.

Those numbers really hit home for me once I was elected Supervisor in El Dorado County. Each death penalty trial in our small county cost much more than a trial seeking life in prison without parole. I know because we, the Board of Supervisors, had to pay the bills. And they were steep. Two trials are required in death penalty cases: one to determine guilt, and a second to determine the penalty — life imprisonment with no chance of parole or death.  In the second phase, many lawyers are needed and many experts are hired. Unique and endless legal issues must be decided. It all adds up.

After that you have mandatory appeals – safeguards only needed in death penalty cases that we cannot simply toss out because they are in the Constitution. They require hundreds of specialized lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office, more at the three state agencies that represent death row inmates, and even more at the California Supreme Court. A similar blue-print follows in the federal courts.  It’s a colossal bureaucracy. A massive government program that flies under the radar.

Even more galling is the special treatment death row inmates get and that we pay for. Unlike all other inmates, death row inmates get private cells and they don’t have to work. They don’t pay restitution to the victims’ compensation fund, like other inmates do. They just sit in their cells, talking to their lawyers, doing nothing or watching TV, and often answering fan mail. That’s why many death row inmates oppose Proposition 34, because they don’t want to lose their special status.

And 34 years after the Briggs Initiative, the Legislative Analyst Office is not saying the fiscal impacts are “unknown.” Today, their non-partisan analysis of Proposition 34 says the initiative will save taxpayers up to $130 million each year. That works out to $178,800 per death row inmate per year.

Opponents of Proposition 34 like to say “let’s fix the system.” Truth is, Republicans have had their hand on California’s judicial death penalty rudder for 25 years. Voters ousted three liberal justices for failing to affirm death sentences and after nearly 20 years on the court, conservative, Republican-appointed Chief Justice Ronald George concluded that the death penalty system is “dysfunctional.”  Current Republican appointed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has echoed these remarks, saying the system is “not effective.”  Recently retired Justice Carlos Moreno, who believes in the death penalty, supports Proposition 34 because he knows the system can’t and won’t be fixed. This bloated byzantine program hardly is light years away from the conservative mantra of “smaller, smarter, simpler” government.

Let’s be real. As conservatives we know that “government reform” is an oxymoron. Even if we could do it, it would cost even more money. And in today’s fiscal climate, no elected official of any party anywhere, is going to propose more government spending.

Do we vote simply based on the low bid here?  Perhaps not. Californians – and certainly conservatives – should also know that a $4 billion dysfunctional government bureaucracy must sometimes make mistakes, and that innocent people could be subjected to this unique and irreversible penalty. That reason alone supports a YES on 34 vote now and is one of the main reasons O’Reilly supports replacing the death penalty.

Lastly, this system does harm to victims. I have seen what happens when death penalty cases are reversed after decades of appeals and returned to our county for a new trial. We force the victims to confront their worst nightmare again and again.

We have an alternative. Life in prison without parole keeps our families safe and provides legal finality for victims. It also holds criminals accountable by making them work and pay restitution to the victims’ compensation instead of enjoying super star status on death row.

I applaud Bill O’Reilly for supporting Proposition 34. I urge every true conservative to follow his lead.

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