Why the death penalty is not the answer

In her eloquent response to my query, “Is there justice in such a world”, Frances McNeal wrote:

“I do not believe in the death penalty. The Prison Industrial Complex in our nation is not about justice. We see that African-Americans make up 12% of the population and 50% of the prison population. Something is wrong with that picture. We also see the over population of prison with people of color in general. I once asked my grandmother about her opinion of the death penalty and she looked at me and simply said, “Never take what you can’t give!” In essence a human life. I do believe in restorative justice. I believe that if the judicial system allowed an alternative they would be a lot better if they practiced restorative justice overall. They could learn from the indigenous people in the United States. I also wanted to say that there was an African tribe in Africa who when someone did something wrong they had to stand in the middle of the village and all day long the villagers would come up to that person and remind them of all the good things that they have done and all of their positive attributes. When I did an artistic residency in a women’s prison I did this same thing with the women. Each woman took turns standing in the circle as we reminded them as a group of their power, beauty, and positive attributes. Is it no surprise we had wonderful results? Even women looking physically different. Everything responds to love and restoration. We can come up with alternatives that can bring forth justice and healing in ways that are powerful and profound. We must go to the heart of the matter by challenging ourselves to see another way of living and being.”

I could not agree more.  Here is my list explaining why I don’t believe in the death penalty:

1. As DNA testing has proved, a substantial percentage of those on death row are innocent. It turns out that eye witness evidence is not very reliable– especially with respect to strangers seen in a traumatic situation.

2. In emotional judgments our unacknowledged prejudices come up: for instance, racism. The statistics McNeal cites above speak for themselves.

3. We don’t really honor the families of victims by putting the guilty to death. Stopping the perpetrators from hurting others in the same way, yes.  Rebalancing and healing the harm done by a crime, yes.

In short, I support restorative justice rather than retribution. We don’t need to give emotional power (or publicity) to the guilty by conceiving of ourselves as their “victims”. Retribution also inevitably  the cycle of violence to escalate. By legally “avenging” someone, we sanction vengeance as a model for others to follow.

Protecting ourselves or someone we love from attack is certainly justified, but if we are in no physical danger, cold blooded killing for whatever reason is something very different.  All killing, whether justified or not,  creates a kind of soul sickness in need of healing.  I once brought up this topic with an ethics class of mixed generation students and one hundred per cent had examples to share of PTSD in themselves or relatives returned from US wars, going back to World War I.  Some contemporary vets suffering PTSD have successfully participated in healing ceremonies for returning warriors in US indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, we don’t usually offer our returning vets such social and spiritual re-integration ceremonies.

4. We are not omniscient enough to plumb the heart of another–and thus we cannot declare that they are incapable of redemption. And we should consider the consequences to ourselves of declaring any other human being unworthy of compassion.

In sum, our goal should be to restore the balance of society after a murder.  A loss of life calls for healing, not more loss of life.

In his context, we  need to examine the cultural underpinnings of violent crimes.– and direct some prevention into changing those values.

Individualism: it is no coincidence that those dangerous individuals with “attachment disorder” come out of a society which proclaims the importance of individualism.  Attachment disorder is the culmination of such individualism, in which nothing and no one else counts outside of the individual. In this sense, crimes committed by those with attachment disorder are showing us the terrible shadow of extreme individualism .

It doesn’t make sense to single out an “evil” individual when we allot heroic standing to those who triumph over others in the business arena– often at substantial cost of life.  Is it not a form of serial killing when a doctor purposely falsifies the results of experiments for a drug (as one did in the case of Lupron)– causing that drug to be approved by the FDA, causing the deaths of at least 25 women and the maiming of countless others?

I cannot read the mind of the physician who committed this crime, but according to the memos of CEOs of a consortium of plastics manufacturers, they felt they had a clear right to protect their personal profit even after their own doctors told them their workers were dying as a result of the conditions of their labor.

Modern westerners watch tv episodes about finding sociopathic serial killers avidly.  But what about the person in the federal government who hid the memo giving the order to dismantle the warning device that would have alerted the 78 workers trapped and killed in the Farmington mine disaster?

Not only do we have to change the idea that we exist in isolation from others– we need to stop giving monetary rewards to those who act as if this were true.

Might makes right (or “the cream rises to the top”, or Manifest Destiny).  In our movies, Rambo violence wins, asserting the selfsame “heroism” of physical power exerted over others as does anyone on death row.

A few years back Sweden, seeking to change the cultural idea that difficulties should be solved by violence on the part of those with more physical power, embarked on a program to eradicate the spanking of children. It took a concerted national effort, educating parents as to  alternative ways to discipline children.  I would like to see us exhibit similar resolve.

The Western notion of “progress” tells us only our own isolated slice of time counts. Thus we can use up the natural resources necessary for future life–or simply leave them too polluted for others to use after we are through with them.

In this individualistic notion of time, the past is only something to leave behind–and thus we erase all the wisdom of learning from the past– even as we assert the idea that generations have nothing to share with one another.

Certainly we can well use the “male mothers” described by Malidoma Some.  In his African society these are elders who stand beside a young man coming of age and nurture him, teaching to direct his masculine energy. Michael Meade, who has worked extensively with prison populations, has a parallel idea: we need initiation ceremonies for our young men (the vast majority of violent crimes in this society are committed by men under thirty-five) to teach them how to direct their passion and energy.

This meets the need for purpose in many young lives.  There was Lily Yeh’s experience in Philadelphia, for instance, in which local drug lords became her allies in cleaning up neighborhoods (literally, with garbage clean up and creation of community parks and gardens) when they were given this alternative opportunity.

Other projects, like Daniel Coleman’s teaching of “emotional intelligence” to middle school students impart personal power along with alternatives to hair trigger violence to such students.

Changing our worldviews and values is a large job, but it is a work whose fruits would benefit all of us.  With those like Frances McNeal, whose words begin this post, working for justice– we have both hope and vision on our side.

3 Responses

  1. It is appalling to think of all those CEOs and corporations who get away with corruption and tax evasions. They make so much money as it is, they will do anything in their power to obtain more of it. I find it ridiculous that a doctor would falsify documents indicating Lupron was a safe, effective drug just so the FDA would regulate it. I wonder what went through that doctor’s mind when he discovered 25 women died and countless others where maimed by the drug. Did he think he was going to get away with it? Does he feel personally responsible for his actions? And the memos of the CEOs of the plastic manufacturers…did they really feel money was more important than the lives of those 25 women? Was money more important than the disfiguration of those other women?

    I agree with you that we need a more positive justice system that creates better and more disciplined people rather than treat them like violent and unimportant beings as they face death row or are imprisoned for their crimes. I like the idea about putting the guilty person in the middle of a circle and have other people in the community or other fellow inmates tell that person how important he or she is and the beauty he or she possesses. It gives that person a sense of self-worth rather than feeling like low-life scum. Boosting moral and self-esteem makes a person feel important and good about him or herself and can help the individual obtain positive characteristics. We need to create a healing environment and society. Violence is all around us…on our streets, in our homes, on television, in movies, and overseas on the battlefield. When violence becomes so engrained into our minds and society, it is very difficult for some people to behave in society. War vets may be haunted for their actions or the things they saw while engaging in battle and may not be able to live a normal life. Some people may be so used to violence in their homes and society that it’s accepted as normal. When they commit a crime, they are punished by either thrown in prison or even put on death row depending on the crime. Some people may not know any better. They feel like violence is normal. We should focus on the idea of healing people who may have violent hearts and help these suffering people have a more positive outlook on things.

  2. Thank you for a compassionate response, Ashley. I look for you to be one of those who helps to make a change in the right direction.

  3. The death penalty remains to be one of America’s most controversial topics. I used to work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and found it interesting that the death penalty was often the elephant in the room when it came to discussions about inmates. It was interesting because the movement at the current time was that of political correctness, but that there were still many “good ol’ boys” working there that would consistentyl make very inappropriate comments. I just loved working with the sociologist there who valued positive reinforcement, much like the African tribe who would tell the offenders good and positive things about themselves. It was amazing to watch the offenders that we were able to build up thirve and become proud of themselves-sometimes for the first time in their lives. It was interesting to hear how the Houston Crime lab was one of the worst labs in terms of convicting the wrong people. It really made you question whether or not the inmates were telling the truth when they said that they were innocent (because they ALL said that they were innocent). I would love to see the world views change on this matter, but have seen first hand that it will take a lot of work. On the other hand, that is what positive thinking and reinforcement can do! We have to heal the offenders as well as the victims so that we can come together as a society.

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