Ending the Death Penalty Is One Step Toward Ending Mass Incarceration

By Shari Silberstein, Truthout

When historians assess the ultimate demise of the death penalty in the United States, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium will be a key turning point. His sweeping move halting executions for 737 people — more than a quarter of the death row population nationwide — reflects just how deeply this practice has failed.

The significance of the moratorium was clear from the moment the news leaked. Every major media outlet covered the story. Elected officials scrambled to announce their verdicts. Leading thinkers in the criminal legal reform movement praised the action, offering analysis on what exactly has disappeared and why.

What is missing to date is a broader conversation around the opportunities we will have when we finally rid ourselves of the death penalty. No longer will we waste immense resources to center our system around the notion that killing is justice. Freed from that polarizing policy that has sucked all the air out of the room, we can reimagine responses to violence that break cycles of harm, build safety and healing for all, and put us on the road to ending mass incarceration.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff dismantle the death row gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison on March 13, 2019, in San Quentin, California.    CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION VIA GETTY IMAGES

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff dismantle the death row gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison on March 13, 2019, in San Quentin, California.

CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION VIA GETTY IMAGES

We know so much more today about the toxic impacts of our criminal legal system. Mass incarceration and over-policing have compounded centuries of racism and chronic poverty in communities of color, fueling a poisonous cycle of trauma, violence and legal system overreach.

The death penalty is one of the most visible symbols of that cycle, fostering a national culture of violence that normalizes the idea of killing our most vulnerable in the name of justice. This reality lies in plain sight when you look at the lives of those executed. The Death Penalty Information Center compiled information on the 25 men executed in 2018, and it’s horrifying. Seventy-two percent suffered from serious mental illness, some type of brain disability, substantial childhood trauma, or some combination of the three.

Such detriments are compounded by the racism that is endemic to the death penalty and the criminal legal system as a whole. So, when people of color face these kinds of challenges, they are more likely to fall through the cracks than to receive the kind of support that might have made the difference. Studies have found, for example, that doctors are less likely to believe people of color when they express pain. Children of color are less likely to be perceived as youthful. People of color who survive violence are less likely to have access to healing to prevent their getting swept into the cycle, and more likely to be sentenced to die when they commit it. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of the people on death row are people of color. And although about half of all homicide victims are Black, only 15 percent of victims were Black in cases where someone was executed. In short, communities of color disproportionately bear both the burden of violence and our harmful responses to it.

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