The tide has turned against capital punishment in America.
The New Jersey legislature abolished its death penalty last week after years of moratorium and state-commissioned study. New York’s death penalty has been paralyzed by its courts and left for dead by its legislature – its death row shut down last month. Maryland came close this year to passing repeal legislation, and succeed in the next legislative session. An abolition bill passed the senate in Montana earlier this year, and the state of Nebraska came within one vote. In the meantime, with the protocols of lethal injection currently frozen under scrutiny by the Supreme Court, the country has not gone this long without a single execution in decades.
But all of this is happening not because the American populace has experienced some sort of moral rebirth, like a cowboy learning mercy. No, the new discomfort with executions actually has little to do with the ethics of crime and punishment. Rather it has everything to do with whether the death penalty works – and, if it doesn’t work, whether it’s actually dangerous and harmful to those whom the justice system is meant to protect.
Indeed, a majority of Americans still believe that our worst criminals deserve to be put to death. But when asked whether in practice it might be better to simply send them away for a life in prison, a slim but growing majority of Americans prefer this simpler, more consistent version of justice. And a large majority support a moratorium on executions.
The primary reason for this sea change is the alarming streak of exonerations that rippled throughout our justice system after the advent of DNA testing decades ago. Over 200 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence that proved their innocence. And as of this writing, 124 people have been exonerated from death rows in 25 states.
Their stories are shocking: forced false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent or fraudulent forensic analysis. Some of these failures occur due to people with great power, under great pressure, doing bad things; some of it is just due to plain old (and inevitable) human error. But regardless of why, it is clear to many that if our justice system can go this wrong, we can’t allow it to continue as is – especially not with the irreversible act of execution.
A broken system
Behind the spectre of wrongful execution, many other reasons to abandon capital punishment pile up. So many that the American Bar Association called for a moratorium this year.
The death penalty is arbitrary – a given state will likely see the vast majority of its capital sentences come from a tiny minority of its counties. Crimes of similar magnitude will receive different sentences depending on any number of external factors.
The death penalty is biased – almost all of the people who typically receive the death penalty are dirt poor, and often mentally unstable. Crimes of the same magnitude committed by persons with the resources to get a good lawyer typically do not result in death sentences. Crimes in which the victim was black almost never result in death sentences.
The death penalty is harmful to family members of victims of crime, who must endure years, even decades of entanglement with the legal system as the case winds the long road from sentencing to execution.
Last and perhaps least is the cost of the death penalty: counterintuitively, a capital case costs the state many times more than a life in prison. With innocent people being exonerated from death row every year, who could suggest that the justice system cut more corners to make the trial process cheaper?
And though no one wants to put a price tag on justice, one must ask whether the billions of dollars spent chasing death sentences would be better spent putting cops on the street and providing help to victims of crime. Since its death penalty was instated a quarter century ago, New Jersey spent about a quarter billion dollars – all without a single execution, all money that will in the future be redirected to victims services.
After looking at the facts, there just aren’t any coherent reasons to keep the death penalty. Even the deterrence factor has few adherents left – the idea that the death penalty somehow influences criminal behavior was revived, when a handful of dubious studies received a spate of media coverage only to be subsequently and roundly debunked.
The movement toward justice
Unfortunately, the truth alone isn’t enough to affect change. The number of states moving to dismantle the death penalty may be surprising to many Americans, who probably assume that right or wrong the death penalty is here to stay. But a widespread and robust grassroots movement has been paving the way for this progress for years.
The movement is both national and local. It was the people of New Jersey who prodded their leaders to study the death penalty and act upon the finding that it should be abolished. People in states across the country are learning from the progress made in New Jersey, and applying those lessons as they lobby for change in their own states.
The movement is comprised of voices from all of the parties involved in the issue. Families of murder victims are testifying that the death penalty exacerbates the trauma of violent crime. Law enforcement officers – from prosecutors to police chiefs to wardens – are testifying from experience that the death penalty does not make them or us safer, and that our energies and resources are better spent elsewhere. It seems like the only group of people that is not, by and large, speaking up on the matter are our politicians – and even that is changing.
As a whole, the movement to end the death penalty is an example of American democracy at its finest: innovation at the local level driven by broad-based coalitions that have united in demand of change. For now, the movement is primarily state-based – you won’t hear any of the major Democratic candidates talking about the death penalty in the election year (in fact, most of them support capital punishment). But as more states across the country abolish the death penalty, it will gradually bubble up to affect the national discourse.
And hey, speaking of patience and commitment: if you’ve read this far, you probably have a desire to see this movement succeed. Here’s your opportunity to help. Equal Justice USA is a leader in the movement to halt executions. Our Moratorium Now! campaign has been instrumental in the progress made in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and across the country. We provide resources, training, and on-the-ground assistance to the thousands of committed citizens across the country who are working to make change in their states. You can sign up to learn more about our campaigns here, tell friends about our organization, and most importantly, you can support our campaigns with a donation. Our work is made possible by people who want to see a more fair and effective justice system. Together, we’ve achieved that in New Jersey and are about to achieve it in other states across the country; someday, we’ll even achieve it in Texas.
For more information about who we are and what we do, please visit www.ejusa.org.