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5 Death Penalty Facts That Will Make You Want To Abolish It —​ Now

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5 Death Penalty Facts That Will Make You Want To Abolish It

As the streets of America fill with protestors calling for an end to police brutality and a defunding of law enforcement, it is important to connect these demands with movements for broader criminal justice reform.

The first federal execution in over 17 years took place just today, after being cleared by the Supreme Court (despite the objections of the victims' relatives), bringing this issue to the forefront of many Americans' minds.

As of today, there are 28 states where the death penalty is a legal punishment, as well as the federal government and even the U.S. military.

When current demands to abolish police intertwine with demands to abolish prisons and capital punishment, we can envision budgets that fully fund human services and systems that enact healing justice, not violence.

The Promise of Justice Initiative is a Louisiana-based non-profit that advocates for humane, fair, and equal treatment of individuals in the criminal justice system and an end to the death penalty.

With the momentum of this moment, now is the time to abolish the centuries-old practice of executions.

Here are five reasons why it's time to end the death penalty: 

1. Black lives matter.

The BLM movement was founded in 2013 and is a global movement “whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) stands with the movement and believes that all Black Lives Matter, including incarcerated Black lives. 

Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the country.

Over 21,000 people incarcerated in Louisiana are Black. That’s 66% of the prison population, despite being only 32% of the state population.

Capital punishment statisticsreflect the same discriminatory imbalance. In 2015, only 13% of the American population was Black, but Black people accounted for 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed since 1976. 

In Louisiana, 70% of the people on death row are Black or Latino. ;In more than 65% of the cases, victims are white.

Racism influences every aspect of the process from arrest, to charges, to jury selection, to sentencing.

The death penalty is overwhelmingly sought as a conviction for crimes against White victims by Black defendants and almost never for a White defendant in a case where the victim was Black. The North Carolina Supreme Court just ruled that death row inmates must be given their day in court to prove racism affected their sentencing.

Abolishing the death penalty would affirm that we will no longer as a nation utilize an inherently discriminatory process that overwhelminginly kills Black people, much like the police. 

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2. State-sponsored murder is murder.

There is no meaningful distinction between a police officer executing someone on the ground in front of a corner store and prison staff executing someone via lethal injection.

None of the procedural trappings of the criminal justice system — the theater of the courtroom, the supposedly reasoned deliberation of the jury, the sober oversight of the learned judge — make execution less barbaric. In fact, the State’s attempts to legitimize murder through process is arguably the height of barbarism.

Whether in the street or in the execution chamber, the State is paying employees to strap down another human being and extinguish their life. 

Ben Cohen, an attorney at PJI, says, “The death penalty is the state’s claim that it is infallible, all powerful, and will never have to apologize for its mistakes.”  

3. The death penalty is part of an ongoing legacy of white supremacy.

When slavery was abolished in 1863 and news finally reached all enslaved people on June 19, 1865, now celebrated as Juneteenth, the practices of slavery shifted to continue the terror of White supremacy under a different name.

Slave patrols became police departments, plantations became prisons, and lynchings were replaced with the death penalty.

A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization founded by Bryan Stevenson and the recent subject of the acclaimed film Just Mercy, states:  

"Perhaps the most important reason that lynching declined is that it was replaced by a more palatable form of violence. As early as the 1920s, lynchings were disfavored because of the ‘bad press’ they garnered. Southern legislatures shifted to capital punishment so that legal and ostensibly unbiased court proceedings could serve the same purpose as vigilante violence: satisfying the lust for revenge."

White people are being called upon to address wrongdoings, internal racism, and a legacy of hatred and oppression. Abolishing the death penalty is just one part of stopping the cycles of trauma and pain that have haunted Black Americans since before the Civil War. 

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4. The death penalty harms victims’ families and crime survivors.

The movement of crime survivors for criminal justice reform is growing.

A groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind national survey of crime survivors found that victims want, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, a focus on rehabilitating people rather than punishing them.

PJI has two projects that highlight the voices of survivors and victims’ families for abolition of the death penalty, Louisiana Survivors for Reform and LA Repeal.

Executive Director of PJI, Mercedes Montages, says, “When prosecutors seek the death penalty, it places more value on some lives lost than others. The lengthy and painful process in the courts and the media tears families apart. It delays the healing and grieving process over the loss of a loved one. We cannot trust courts to hand down justice when this specter of a death sentence hangs over us as the ultimate, irreversible punishment.”

In 2019, judges, prosecutors, corrections officers, and murder victims’ families sent letters urging the federal government to stop scheduled executions.

The 175 victims’ family members said, “The death penalty does not prevent violence. It does not solve crime. It does not provide services for families like ours. It does not help solve the over 250,000 homicide cold cases in the United States. It exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one and creates yet another grieving family.”

These voices are important and often silenced or co-opted by prosecutors seeking the harshest penalty for political reasons.

When death sentences are carried out, the door left open for transformative justice closes. 

5. There are better ways for the state to spend our money.

The costs of capital punishment are astronomical. There has not been an execution in Louisiana for over ten years, but appeals and due process still carry a heavy price tag. A 2019 study put the cost of the death penalty for Louisiana taxpayers over the past decade at 15.6 million dollars a year.

With the impact of COVID-19 already shrinking state budgets, now more than ever this is not a part of the criminal justice system we can afford. Thanks to the work of organizers, protestors, and advocates, monies spent on the police are being reallocated to build communities and fund human services.

Think of what we could do with millions of dollars a year saved from state-by-state and federal abolition of the death penalty! 

The movement to end racial injustice and state violence is gathering speed and pushing our country toward a much-needed reckoning on what we have learned from the past to heal the future.

You can be a part of this historical time and raise your voice to abolish the worst punishment our state sanctions when you join the movement to end the penalty. Learn more about the Promise of Justice Initiative and other ways to get involved.

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Katie Hunter-Lowrey is a Crime Survivor Organizer and Policy Advocate with the Promise of Justice Initiative where she organizes Louisiana Survivors for Reform (LSR), a coalition of crime survivors, homicide victims' family members, and community organizations supporting criminal justice reform. Follow LSR on Twitter.