President Obama did not mention the death penalty once in a speech he gave advocating for criminal justice reform to the NAACP on July 14, but all of the arguments he presented in favor of shortening sentences for non-violent drug offenders could also be applied to abolishing the death penalty. In his speech, Obama emphasized the importance of equality and redemption in the criminal justice system and condemned the excessive amount of tax payer money wasted to lock people away for unnecessarily long periods of time. Just as Obama cited that the current criminal justice system is tainted with racial bias, seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate, and drains tax payer money from more worthy causes, so does today’s administration of the death penalty. By applying the same principles Obama used to support his call for criminal justice reform to the death penalty, our country should want to end the practice of this draconian institution as well.
“There’s a long history of inequality in the criminal justice system in America,” Obama said to the convention audience. “Who gets incarcerated by a wide margin disproportionally impacts communities of color… African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the population and 60% percent of inmates.” We can no longer afford to ignore the fact that people of color are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, a tragic phenomenon that can only be attributed to a broken criminal justice system infected with racial bias. In this sense, death penalty trials are no different than trials related to non-violent drug crimes.
55% of people currently sitting on death row are people of color, and people of color who murder a white person are much more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim were also a person of color. A 2007 study sponsored by the American Bar Association found that in Philadelphia, one third of African American death row inmates would not have been sentenced to death if they were white. These alarming statistics highlight the gravity of the bias present in death penalty trials, even though the punishment for defendants in these trials is irreversible. While Obama mentions the injustice in sentencing people of color for longer periods of time than white people who commit the same crimes, there is nothing more unjust than executing a person based on the color of his or her skin.
Death penalty trials are riddled with inequality and racial bias, with the process of jury selection serving as one channel through which prosecutors can more easily sentence a person of color to death. Potential jurors who express disapproval of the death penalty can automatically be struck from serving on a jury, and people of color tend to oppose the death penalty at higher rates than their white counterparts. Also, some prosecutors have concocted “race neutral” reasons that can be used to strike people of color from juries, thus leading to the creation of predominantly white juries that are used to convict black and latino defendants. For example, Harold Wilson was convicted of murdering three people and was subsequently sentenced to death in 1989. Wilson maintained his innocence while in prison, and in 2003 a trial court granted him a new trial due to the clear racial bias in the prosecution of his case. Former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon prosecuted Wilson in 1989, but in 1997 a training video was released depicting McMahon instructing prosecutors how to strike black people, whom he believed were less likely to convict, from a jury.
Wilson was finally exonerated in 2005 when DNA evidence was presented for the first time that proved his innocence. Wilson’s case is just one of many affected by racial bias, thus demonstrating the pervasiveness of inequality in death penalty trials. If the United States hopes to have a criminal justice system free from inequality, we must abolish the death penalty, which is both unequal and ultimate.
A recurring theme throughout the President’s speech was also redemption, with the President expressing his strong belief that people have the ability to change for the better and the dire need for a criminal justice system that reflects that sentiment. “We want to be in a position in which if somebody in the midst of their imprisonment recognized the error of their ways, is in the process of reflecting where they’ve been and where they should be going, we got to make sure that they are in a position to make that turn,” President Obama said. The death penalty offers inmates no such hope for redemption and fails to recognize the universal human ability to change. Thus the death penalty by nature discourages death row inmates from making the “turn” Obama refers to, and those who do reform their lives are rarely if ever saved from their state-sanctioned death.
Stanley Tookie William was sentenced to death in 1981 for murdering four people by an all-white jury. Williams, who founded the street gang the Crips, maintained his innocence throughout his trial. After his death sentence, Williams completely changed his violent disposition and became a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a children’s book author, and a harsh critic of gangs. Thousands of people including judges called for his clemency, clearly moved by Williams’ incredible transformation and his self-described redemption. Despite efforts to save Williams, he was ultimately executed in 2005. In the end it did not matter that Williams had become a leading critic to gang violence and had improved countless lives, because no matter what he did after the moment he was sentenced to death he would still be executed. Thus the death penalty directly opposes what Obama triumphed as the American and immigrant tradition of “remaking ourselves” and therefore cannot be a source of justice. Obama said, “Justice and redemption go hand in hand”, but as long as the death penalty still exists, these words will be hollow.
Throughout the entirety of his speech, Obama lamented the high costs of the criminal justice system that currently hovers around $80 billion a year. That taxpayer money could be put towards much better use, like providing every child with a free preschool education. Similarly, the death penalty costs substantially more than existing alternative sentences. The state of California alone has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978, and one study concluded that if California abolished the death penalty tomorrow, it would instantly save $170 million per year. Considering California’s current financial woes, this is a lot of money that has the potential to do a tremendous amount of good rather than being spent towards execution. The University of California Berkeley last year witnessed hundreds of students protesting tuition hikes due to the state’s lack of funding for the University of California system. $170 million could be spent to pay for the education of thousands of students at some of the best public institutions in the country, making for a sound investment in the future. The large amount of taxpayer money we spend on the death penalty forces us to confront our values as a society and ask whether we care more about executing people or educating our children, especially since the death penalty does not make us safer.
Although the death penalty as a system needs to be abolished, this by no means lessens the severity of the crimes committed by those often sentenced to death. As Obama said, “There are some folks who need to be in jail.” Many of the people sentenced to death have committed atrocious crimes and certainly should be held accountable for their actions within reason. However, the death penalty is an extremely cruel and excessive punishment that does not accurately reflect our values as a society, perpetuates racial bias, fails to keep us safe, and risks the execution of innocent people.
President Obama’s speech advocating for criminal justice reform is of paramount importance and offers a realistic hope for an end to mass incarceration. The death penalty is too often excluded from important conversations about criminal justice reform, but in order to truly reform our broken system, we must talk about the death penalty. Abolishing the death penalty is crucial to the formation of a more equal, just, and effective criminal justice system.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.