Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

As an African American woman living in Oakland, whose brother was murdered, I strongly oppose the death penalty. More than anything, I want to live in a safe community—a community where my six sons and my daughter are able to pursue all of theirs dreams without fear of becoming another number in the city homicide count. We live with the consistent threat that - this time - it will be one of them and not a friend or classmate that will become another Oakland victim. While I love my city, this is simply a reality faced by people of color in Oakland each day. I believe a vital step to help end this tide of fear is to end the use of the death penalty.

Why the death penalty? The death penalty is very hurtful to the minority community in Alameda County and the entire state. One reason for this is due to the tremendous cost associated with the death penalty that is draining the county budget. Every death penalty trial costs local counties $1.1 million more than a trial ending in permanent imprisonment. Every person already on death row costs state tax payers hundreds of thousands.

In total, we are paying $139 million each and every year more, for a broken death penalty system, than we would pay for those individuals condemned to permanent imprisonment instead. And now we know that rebuilding death row at San Quentin will cost nearly $400 million, plus over $1 billion to operate the facility for 20 years. While we are spending all this money on people on death row most of them end up dying of natural causes before their long delayed sentences are carried out. At this time of fiscal crisis, when every state program is being cut, just imagine what that money could buy. For example, our children in Oakland could greatly benefit from more afterschool programs, playgrounds, and other activities that can lead them to a more productive life.

People of color, specifically African-Americans and Latinos, are much more likely to be victims of murder than our white neighbors. Yet, the death penalty is reserved almost exclusively for cases where the victim is white. A statewide study by Professors Michael Radelet and Glenn Pierce on race and the death penalty found people convicted of killing a white person are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone convicted of killing an African-American. If the victim is Latino, the disparity grows to four times. I don't know what causes the disparity, but it may have a lot to do with the fact that homicides of people of color are less likely to be solved than homicides of white victims. In Alameda County, where I live, only 26% of homicides were solved in 2005. Given that we can keep those on death row from returning to the streets without executions, the millions spent on death row could be better spent for more detectives to solve the many cold cases. That could begin to make those in Oakland feel a bite more safe.

But perhaps more disturbing, at least to me, that same study found that counties that are predominately white are more likely to send people to death row than counties that are diverse. Death sentencing in California is based on geography, not on a structured, evenhanded formula. Only ten counties account for 85% of death sentences since 2000 and Alameda County is one of them. The vast majority of California counties rarely or never send anyone to death row.

We should also ask how many of the 670 people on death row are in fact innocent? Thank God for DNA testing and for those that have been exonerated in the past; but have mercy on those that did not escape the clutches of a broken and unfair system. DNA evidence is only available in a small number of cases. We will never know how many innocent people we have already executed in this country, let alone how many innocent people are growing old on death row all the while praying that someone will help them.

My hope is that more people will understand how unjust the death penalty is and will call for a halt to all death penalty trials. In the meantime, the money now spent on death penalty facilities, and all monies directed towards new death penalty cases should be funneled towards resources that will strengthen our communities. The best way to do that is through funding education. Fight Crime, Invest in Kids—a law enforcement organization—found that increasing California’s high school graduation rate by 10% would prevent 500 homicides per year. They found the impact would be greatest in schools that are predominantly African-American and Latino, schools were the majority of students now do not graduate. Educating our children is not only smart policy in and of itself, it is also the most effective violence prevention program we have.

Please don't surmise that I don't sympathize with all the families that are victims of murder, being one myself, I certainly care. However, I would not have wanted to relive my brother's murder over and over again, trial after trial, as happens in death penalty cases. A discovery I made in the wake of my brothers murder is that hating or failing to forgive the perpetrator allows more than one grave to be dug. The stress, pain and hurt that could riddle my body and mind just does not serve me nor honor my brother's memory. I feel that as long as the perpetrator is permanently locked away, they will serve time in hell here on earth. My heart is with each family that has ever had to face the devastating pain of losing a loved one to a senseless crime.

We are only as strong as our weakest link. Marginalizing communities based on the color of ones skin needs to become a thing of the past - ASAP. We will come closer to that goal if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment and invest the money saved in educating all our children.

Delane Sims is the owner of a nail spa in Oakland but is a social justice activist at heart. She volunteers as chair of a senior group she founded in San Leandro, is a commissioner on Aging in Alameda County, a student at Berkeley City College and is now the Death Penalty Outreach Coordinator for the ACLU of Northern California.

June 20, 2008, The California Progress Report

The California Progress Report is published by Frank D. Russo, a longtime observer of and participant in California politics.

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