Race and the Death Penalty
"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist." Angela Davis
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked renewed waves of outrage over police brutality and accountability, leading to mass demonstrations in every major American city, in all 50 states, and in cities around the world. Most of these demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, were themselves met with highly militaristic police violence, covered round-the-clock on national, local, and social media platforms. It's clear: America has reached a point where we can no longer avoid a serious moral reckoning with the violent racial inequality embedded in the very fiber of our nation. That this oppression has been present in the 244 years since the founding of our country does not excuse present inaction, and one way we are beginning this work is through a massive new public debate over the nature of – and need for – modern policing.
As we examine the police, it is important to remember that demonstrable racial inequality is present throughout all parts of our criminal justice systems. Disparities show up at every stage: citations versus warnings, charging decisions, bail amounts, predatory plea agreements, quality public legal representation, jury selection, sentencing outcomes, incarceration rates, carceral practices, inmate treatment, and in the application of the death penalty, which is irreversible once carried out. The statistics are stark. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 75% of all capital cases involve white victims. Frank Baumgartner, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, analyzed capital cases in the 29 states with the death penalty still on the books (the state of Colorado passed abolition after the study was complete). He found that the average number of executions carried out for every 10,000 homicides was 65 when the victim was white, but only 14 when the victim was Black. This disparity is also reflected in the demographics of death row populations in the United States as compared to the overall population. According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 13.4% of all people in the United States are Black – yet as of January 1 of this year, 41.56% of all death row inmates are Black. On the other hand, although approximately 76.3% of all people in the United States are white, 42.1% of all death row inmates are white. Despite all the clear evidence of systemic racism woven into the very fabric of the United States justice system, it is fortunately still an evolving system. In 2009, the state legislature in North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act, which provided death row inmates legal recourse to argue for commutation of their sentences by showing evidence of racial bias in their cases. The law was amended and then repealed by later legislatures, and even those who had successfully sought relief were thrown back on death row. However, in a 6-1 decision published in early June, the North Carolina Supreme Court stated that the repeal of the law could not halt reviews originally filed under the law while it was in effect, allowing North Carolina’s 150+ death row inmates to proceed. Although it is encouraging to see bellwether cases like this advance around the country, the current movement for justice is characterized by a far deeper sense of urgency. Nowhere has this been stated more emphatically than in calls to defund police departments. This concept may seem radical and counterintuitive, but there are mountains of socioeconomic data behind the idea that reinvesting resources in disadvantaged communities, regardless of their racial demographics, leads to a verifiable sustained reduction in not only overall crime rates but violent crime in particular. In other words, rather than spending millions on law enforcement departments designed to simply combat crime by (sometimes lethal) force, communities could reinvest those resources on civic improvements widely proven to reduce crime – vastly decreasing the overall harm done to our shared social fabric in the process!
If we are to consider diverting law enforcement resources towards crime prevention through civic investment, a straight line must also be drawn between public spending priorities and outcomes regarding capital punishment.
There are three key areas to consider. First, there is broad consensus among legal experts and law enforcement alike that capital punishment does almost nothing to reduce violent crime. Second, the death penalty is clearly applied with racial and socioeconomic disparity. Third, it is also very expensive. Abolishing the death penalty will allow for the reallocation of resources towards restorative victim support programs and proactive crime measures, all while removing a deadly instrument of injustice from the U.S. criminal justice system.
The drive to abolish police, fueled by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, James Scurlock, and so many others, challenges us all to imagine a better future for the United States. As we build that future, and as we seek to ensure that equitable justice is present at every level of the criminal justice systems – from first contact through trials and into sentencing and release – we must understand that a society which prioritizes quality of life over state violence must include abolition of the death penalty.
Join NADP in calling for equitable justice throughout our criminal justice systems. Start conversations with friends, family members, and members of your community. Learn about anti-racism, and practice it at every opportunity. Write, call, or email your Nebraska state senator and demand immediate action towards removing all vestiges of racism from our justice system, including the death penalty!