Bringing On Abolition
In 2011, there were 14,612 homicides in the United States. 43 people were executed in 13 states. This year, there have already been 18 executions, including Texas’ 500th since 1982. Dismal statistics like these consume my days working at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
On a more positive note, six states in the last six years have abolished the death penalty, bringing the total to 18 states. Sure, those states are all blue as can be (Obama won NY, NJ, NM, IL, CT, and MD in 2008 and 2012), but the next abolition victories will likely be in some purple and red states– including Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Hampshire.
This emerging pattern is not accidental: abolition unites people. Conservatives point to cost effectiveness. A study from the Urban Institute showed that the death penalty cost Maryland taxpayers $186 million from 1976-2008. There were five executions in Maryland in that time period – that equates to a staggering $37.2 million per death sentence carried out. Liberals point out racial bias: the death penalty is more often sought if the victim is white or if the defendant is not white. In Arizona, for example, 15.6% of the population is African-American, yet 63.1% of Arizona’s 127 death row inmates are black. Conversely, 80.1% of the state’s population is white yet only 36.8% of death row inmates are.
Religions, too, unite against the death penalty. Catholics oppose executions using the very same pro-life arguments that put them at odds with the Reform Movement’s position on reproductive health issues. Communities who often find themselves at odds in many other debates rally together around abolition.
Last week, I succumbed to the D.C. spirit and began binging on The West Wing. To my surprise, Episode 14 (Season 1) revolves around the death penalty! President Bartlet must decide whether to stay an execution scheduled for 12:01 AM Monday. Bartlet, like any fictional, Catholic President of the United States, debates calling the Pope for guidance but knows the answer he will receive – stay the execution. Meanwhile, Toby, a senior advisor, hears an oddly apropos sermon denouncing capital punishment on Shabbos morning at synagogue and later returns to seek guidance from his Rabbi. In a feat of juxtaposition rivaled by none, while Toby and his Rabbi discuss Jewish values, a woman beautifully sings the Hashkiveinu – asking to lie down in peace at night and awaken to a fresh tomorrow. Jews and Catholics, finding the basis of their feelings on the death penalty in their religion and fighting the same fight. President Bartlet eventually decides not to grant the stay, and he immediately goes to confession.
On February 9, 2000 when the episode “Take This Sabbath Day” originally aired, no state had abolished the death penalty in a quarter century. Governor Ryan of Illinois had issued a moratorium halting the use of capital punishment until studies could be done – a monumental and reinvigorating moment for abolition activists – just 10 days earlier. The movement’s spark had just been reignited. I wonder what President Bartlet would do today.