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Ending the Death Penalty Is One Step Toward Ending Mass Incarceration

We must replace the death penalty’s punishment paradigm with a vision of true justice.

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.

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 peoplemore 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.

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.

Indeed, the death penalty is a modern-day extension of lynching. It’s no coincidence that executions began to increase in the U.S. as lynchings started to decline, in the beginning of the 20th century.

Michelle Alexander documented the rise and intergenerational effects of mass incarceration in her book, The New Jim Crow, and has become one of our leading thinkers on how racial inequity continues to plague the U.S. because of our failing criminal legal system. Recently, she addressed the issue of violence and our overly punitive response to it. Drawing from an essential new book, Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered, Alexander wrote that “if we fail to face violence in our communities honestly, courageously and with profound compassion for the survivors — many of whom are also perpetrators of harm — our nation will never break its addiction to caging human beings.”

This call to action demands a new vision for addressing violence that begins with prevention and places healing and equity at the center. The death penalty has no place in that vision. The choice to pursue a death penalty sentence is a decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, every year, on a practice that does not deter crime and drains funds from services that are proven to prevent it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about merely replacing the death penalty with life without parole sentences, which fail on nearly the same scale. Like executions, they also target the most vulnerable (a full two-thirds of people currently serving life without parole are people of color) without delivering public safety gains. There is mounting evidence that people age out of crime, leaving life-without-parole sentences without any purpose other than to inflict suffering until death.

Our charge is altogether different. We have an opportunity to reimagine the punishment paradigm altogether. As we dismantle capital punishment state by state, we free up crucial resources that can be invested in solving the root causes of trauma, violence and mass incarceration that devastate communities of color, deepen racial disparities and scar millions. I am talking about proven violence intervention programs that use public health strategies to interrupt violence before it happens; trauma-informed healing in communities harmed by violence; restorative justice programs that allow people to truly own and repair the harm they cause; and other community-based solutions that emphasize safety and healing over retribution and more pain. In those instances where safety necessitates some limited period of separation, that separation should not inflict more suffering. Rather, it should create the conditions necessary for people to take responsibility, change, and come out better off.

Think about what might happen if we diverted hundreds of millions of dollars away from the punitive justice that has done so much harm and toward strategies that can replace mass incarceration with thriving neighborhoods.

California’s achievement cannot be overstated. The death penalty is the epitome of our misguided approach to justice. Until this vestige of our shameful past is eliminated, our society cannot truly value Black lives, nor imagine a legal system that fully embraces the values of equality, fairness and human dignity.

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