Californians will have a chance to vote the death penalty out of existence this November. As of right now, there are more people on death row in California than in any other state–all of them for murder. A referendum against the death penalty in the nation’s largest state would be an enormous victory for anti-death penalty activists, as well as for all people, if you think about it. So why is this happening now? Because, according to the LA Times, the left-leaning movement is finding support in the unlikeliest of places:
Growing numbers of conservatives in California have joined the effort to repeal the state’s capital punishment law, expressing frustration with its price tag and the rarity of executions… Backing the new measure are Ron Briggs, who ran the 1978 campaign for a successful ballot initiative that expanded the reach of California’s death penalty; Donald J. Heller, an ex-prosecutor who wrote the 1978 initiative; Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions; and former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said his experience as D.A. helped change his mind about the fairness of the system.
Criminal justice reform and fiscal conservatism should go hand-in-hand, to be honest. But for too many years conservatives have actually been the ones to advocate broadening the penal code, widening the state’s reach, and expanding the prison industrial complex. In 1968, Richard Nixon famously argued that doubling the nation’s penal population would do far more to keep Americans safe than would Hubert Humphrey’s War on Poverty. And during the 1970s and 1980s, his vision was born out. Only the hypothesis underlying that vision failed to bear fruit.
Various conservatives–perhaps because they really have returned to libertarian roots; perhaps because state governors, many of whom happen to be conservative, have to find ways to save money–are beginning to rethink their priorities on the matter. As NPR reported (a year ago), California’s spending on prisons has risen 25 times faster than spending on higher education over the past three decades. The state meanwhile houses 170,000 people in a system designed originally to house 83,000. Its spending on corrections will approach $10 billion in the next fiscal year, and that doesn’t even include the several billions of dollars needed to fund penal infrastructure. Before dealing the humanitarian and civil questions surrounding our criminal justice system–the U.S. regularly executes innocent people; blacks are for more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites, even for the same crime; imprisonment serves far more as an enduring social stigma than as a “penitent” and “reformative” experience–states like California have to face up to the fact that they literally cannot afford to keep doing what they have been doing.
So let them come. Whatever their motivations, I applaud conservatives who are moving to the front lines of criminal justice reform. If there grew a consensus during the past few decades over “tough on crime,” perhaps we can see a new consensus grow, one more realistic about what “toughness” entails in practice. I’m not naive, and understand that this also happens to be a moment of draconian anti-immigration laws and self-defense statutes, but let’s not ignore progress when it happens. Hopefully Californians–liberals and conservatives alike–make the right choice this November.