Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The Political Base of the Death Penalty

The experiences of murder and punishment change enormously in different places and different times.  All of us know that in our time the United States ranks very high in number of murders and prisoners, in length of incarceration, and in death sentences.

We may be hardened to comparisons with apartheid South Africa, and we may not even believe the similarities that are pointed out between our center of Western democracy and the tyrannies of lands we consider much less "civilized."  Yet the facts are evident and they are upsetting. Why do we have so much violent crime?  Why do we believe that violent punishment is the cure?  Could other solutions be accepted in our country?  And, are these issues religious, political, or psychological?

While the questions can be profitably viewed from all angles, I believe the issue we must face more frankly is not individual guilt or individual compassion, but the collective responsibility of our society to provide the possibility of a decent life. There will always be deviations from society's norms; the question must be: Is the norm available to all at us? Do we insist that our government provide for the general welfare and the chance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for which our founders believed governments were instituted?

If American society cannot shape itself in accord with that goal, if the objectives of our government and our economy and our social patterns fail so far from that responsibility that a significant number of people cannot function within it, there is sure to be a lot of crime. The "social contract" breaks down. Alienation takes the place at community. Where people have no sense of control over their destinies, they cannot be constructive participants in society.

Looking for "bad apples" in the barrel won't remove the problems. We cannot ensure our safety by doubling the number of prisons or sentences of death.  And in an unjust society, a coalition to abolish the death penalty cannot rely on sympathy for those on death row to abolish the death penalty.

We who oppose the death penally realize that hanging, shooting, and poisoning people is not a reasonable response to murder. We understand that the desire for revenge and the belief that the death penalty can deter murder are largely reactions to fear and stress. We know that justice is different for the rich and the poor, the white and the black. We recognize the Herculean task of lawyers in death row cases that have been botched from the beginning, and we deplore the failure to provide sufficient legal protection for indigent accused. We're aware that prosecutors often succumb to emotional and popular calls for the death penalty. We understand these political facts about the death penalty.

Yet there are more basic truths that underlie the political base of the death penalty. Our society creates an ideal setting for murder, decides what segments of our population are expendable and concludes that death is a satisfactory solution to murder because it doesn't affect "us"--only "them."

These issues need a lot of thought. And we must consider more than murder and the death penalty, for although murder is the crime that most clearly demonstrates alienation from society, rejection of community is the basis of many crimes: assault and rape, embezzlement and government sleaze, and destruction and theft of property. (I don't consider the retreat into alcohol and drugs a crime, but it is another, more passive form of alienation.) Yes, we need to impose sanctions for crime, but we can't control it merely by harsh punishment.

In the 80s we multiplied our prisons and began to execute more people. At the same time we halved our expenditures for social needs and intensified a caste system to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.  Now the rich glory in the 2,000 point gain in the stock market, while millions of decent paying jobs are lost to part-time employment without security or benefits and vast numbers of women are left alone to raise their children in poverty. We maintain large numbers of unemployable young males.  We don't educate them. We have a "war on drugs" which, from all appearances, is another racist attack on urban poor.

Dr. Jerome Stolnick, Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that family and societal structures depend on jobs. "Employment," he says, "is a term of social control."  He then repeats the prophetic lines he first wrote in the official report on the urban riots of 1968:

"A democratic society cannot depend upon force as its recurrent answer to longstanding and legitimate grievances.  This nation cannot have it both ways: Either it will carry through a firm commitment to massive and widespread social reform, or it will develop into a society of garrison cities where order is reinforced without due process of law and without the consent of the governed."

The death penalty would thrive in those garrison cities. A just penalty for murder must be sought in a more just society. We must continue to point out the injustice of the death penalty, and also the broader injustice that spawns alienation and violence in both the murderer and the executioner.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login