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DOJ Suspends Federal Executions — But Activists Say Biden Should Go Further

The moratorium on federal executions doesn’t end the death penalty, which Biden campaigned on doing in 2020.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during an event at the Justice Department on June 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is issuing a moratorium on all federal executions, pausing a set of brutal policies that were put in place by the Trump administration last year. But many anti-death penalty activists say that President Joe Biden needs to fulfill his campaign promise of ending the death penalty altogether.

Attorney General Merrick made the announcement on Thursday evening.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” Garland said. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

The pause in executions only applies to federal prisoners sentenced to the death penalty, around 50 individuals in total.

Whiled viewed by many liberals as a step in the right direction, death penalty abolitionists emphasized the ultimate futility of attempts to reform capital punishment.

“We know the federal death penalty system is marred by racial bias, arbitrariness, over-reaching, and grievous mistakes by defense lawyers and prosecutors that make it broken beyond repair,” Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, said to the Associated Press.

Movement activists also called on the Biden administration to take more proactive steps in ending the practice altogether.

“While a moratorium on federal executions has symbolic value, we’ve seen the danger of half-measures that do not fully address the fundamental brokenness of our death penalty system,” opined anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean. “More is required.”

David Menschel, a criminal defense attorney and social activist, agreed.

“Garland’s pause on executions (while continuing to prosecute and defend death sentences) will end just like Obama’s: with the next president executing a whole bunch of people,” Menschel said. “It isn’t being against the death penalty, it’s being for it.”

Public attitudes on the death penalty have shifted dramatically over the past two decades. According to polling data from Gallup, only 25 percent of voters in the U.S. opposed the death penalty in 2001. By 2020, that number jumped up to 43 percent.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden said that he was in favor of ending the death penalty completely, citing executions in the past where defendants were later proven to be innocent. “Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” according to his campaign website.

But since becoming president, Biden has not prioritized the issue. Indeed, his own DOJ has even called for the Supreme Court to have the death penalty be reconsidered for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Death penalty abolitionists have repeatedly emphasized that capital punishment should not be replaced by life sentences — described by activists as “death by incarceration.” More than 206,000 individuals are currently serving life or “virtual life” prison terms in the United States, and just like the death penalty itself, these sentences disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

Opponents of the death penalty have called for ending these types of sentences and instead addressing the root causes of violence by addressing the material and social needs of communities.

“The Biden administration should take firm action to address death-by-incarceration sentences, helping to mitigate a bit of the damage caused by Biden’s history of hardline policies,” Brian Pitman and Asha Ralph wrote for Truthout.

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