Thursday, October 09, 2014

Race and the death penalty revisited

In 2012 I had the privilege of working on a California campaign to end death sentences by making life without parole the state's harshest punishment for awful crimes. The initiative failed narrowly.

In the course of the campaign I unavoidably learned a great deal about why many voters insist on preserving death as a option in response to atrocious acts. A considerable number really believe that the state can and should step in to deliver God's (or the universe's) intended punishment to wrongdoers. But many voters, probably far more, simply cling to the death option through a kind of inertia: they assume unspeakable acts should call forth from the community some sort of equally violent response. We are habituated to believe killers deserve to be killed. Unless we are deeply involved with the criminal justice system, we don't think much about the implications of an easy equation of justice with the death option.

In July 2014, a federal judge ruled California's death penalty system unconstitutionally arbitrary and dysfunctional. The state is appealing this ruling. Meanwhile, for the time being, and possibly forever, the state is out of the execution business.

In the 2012 campaign, we talked very little about racial discrepancies in the application of the death penalty, but they persist.

Racial identities unequivocally do play out in the application of law and criminal justice. California had and has the country's largest contingent of condemned prisoners; 743 at last count. Among these, 36 percent are Black, 35 percent white, 24 percent Latino, 2 percent Native American and 3 percent Asian. In the state population at large in 2013 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state's racial breakdown was 6.6 percent Black, 39 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 1.7 percent Native American, 14.1 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent persons claiming two or more races. California death sentences have long been out of line with the state's racial composition.

All this is background I wanted to give to a report on a recent study of how white racial bias puts a disproportionate number of African Americans at risk of death sentences in states that retain the practice (32 at present). According to Dara Lind reporting at Vox, the 2012 campaign was smart not to harp on the racial disparities in capital cases.

The death penalty in the United States has a race problem. ... it's not the racial disparities in the outcome that are most illustrative of the death penalty's race problem. It's the racial disparities throughout the entire process: African Americans are simultaneously the people most affected by death-penalty cases, and the people least likely to have a say in them. ...

Sixty-three percent of whites support the death penalty, as opposed to 36 percent of African Americans (and 40 percent of Hispanics).

There's evidence that calling attention to the racial disparities doesn't make whites more wary of supporting the death penalty — it makes them more enthusiastic. [Emphasis added.] One 2007 study looked at whether poll respondents were less likely to support the death penalty after hearing various arguments against it. It found that whites "actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against blacks." (This is similar to other studies, which have shown white people are more likely to support harsh prison policies if they believe that black people are overrepresented in prisons.)

There's some unvarnished racism at work here that makes Black defendants far more "death-worthy" than other criminal offenders.

Lind goes on to detail how Blacks are routinely, and legally, excluded from juries in death penalty cases with the result that Black defendants are not judged by a jury of their peers. Further, the legal system excludes the statistical evidence that might enable Black defendants to show how systemic racial bias works. The entire article is important reading.

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