Tea Party Justice: Cheering for The Death Penalty

Numbers usually cause peoples eyes to glaze over in political debates. But when NBC newsman Brian Williams, moderating Republicans Sept 7 debate before a Tea Party crowd, asked Rick Perry about Texas’ 234 executions during his term as governor,( “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”) a wave of what blogger Elias Izquith called “rapturous applause” broke out – “ a fascinating combination of “Fuck you, Williams” and “Go get ‘em, Rick!” – all before Perry could answer . “No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” he said , adding that if you kill someone In Texas “ you will face the ultimate justice… and you will be executed.”, the audience again cheered. Seems like lots of executions are just fine with many Americans, who  now poll 64% in favor of the death penalty. As Governor Perry sees it , ”  Americans understand justice”. Maybe, but it’s become a pretty rough idea that seems more set on retribution than justice. But Texas (which had 337 on death row in January 2010) seems proud of them.
We saw this harsh sentiment in action again last week in the case of Troy Davis on Georgia’s death row for over 20 years, following the 1989 murder of a police officer. Despite mountains of “reasonable doubt” in his murder conviction, retractions by key witnesses of most of the testimony that led to his conviction, and a huge international campaign to stop and reconsider this sentence, the state rushed to kill him within an hour and half of the Supreme Court’s last minute refusal to grant a stay earlier this month.

While there is now a worldwide trend toward ending the death penalty – 138 countries have abolished it ( up from 17 in 1977 ) , the US is today one of the few developed countries in the world that still executes people. However, despite appearances at Tea Party events, there is not unanimity about the death penalty in our nation: while  35 states ( plus the Federal government and military) still have death penalties on the books ( and together now have over 3200 inmates on death row ) 15 of our states no longer have the death penalty for any crime.

Looking for the source of this diversity among the states regarding the death penalty, we can sense the effects of the tea party mentality. Classifying death penalty by the 22 Red and 21 Blue states – as  determined by the average margins of victory in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008  ( the remaining 7 states being “Purple” battleground states) – we see that 11 of the 15 states that do not have the death penalty are Blue,  and only four are among the  Red states ( Alaska, Iowa, North Dakota, and West Virginia).

While we often deny its relevance for our ideas about the rule of law and concepts of justice and human rights Americans should know that there is a wider world that looks at our position on capital punishment as barbaric. And we should understand that our global outlier status as one of the most punitive among nations goes well beyond executions. We must add mass incarceration to our nations excessive  use of punishment – of which execution is only the tip of the iceberg. With 2.3 million Americans behind bars we are now the undisputed world champion of severe punishment.

Today we are in the midst of a wave of punitiveness that has been building for almost 40 years. In 1972, when the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, there were only 10% as many people ( 200,000 ) in US prisons. But then new drug laws that mandated stiff prison sentences for drug users , began to fill our prisons and soon launched a great epidemic of mass incarceration — a plague of prisons.

Mass incarceration? The term seems out of place for America — a nation premised on individual rights and freedom. It conjures up images of brutal foreign tyrannies and totalitarian despots — widespread oppression and domination of individuals under regimes of state power built upon fear, terror, and the absence of effective legal protection. When we think of large-scale systems of imprisonment throughout history, we think of great crimes against humanity — Hitler’s network of diabolical concentration camps, or the vast hopelessness of Stalin’s archipelago of slave labor prison camps. Stalin’s system established a model for mass incarceration whose effects penetrated every corner of Russian society, shaping the experience of millions beyond those in the camps — most immediately the prisoners’ families.

This model seems foreign to life in America  — a product of different times and faraway places. Yet the facts about our vast system of punishment in the US are stark. With 4% of the worlds population, we have 25% of all the worlds prisoners, and over 50% of those held in solitary. Today there are more US prisoners for non- violent drug offenses ( 400,000) than are held in all European prisons for all offenses. If the US prison population had their own city, it would be the second largest in the country. There is a powerful racial dimension to this tale: a black male now has a  28 % lifetime chance of going to prison ( compared to 4% for whites) and the rate is much higher for the poor- over 90% of all black men in Wash DC have been incarcerated. But mass incarceration goes beyond race  Our hyper punitive system has now has ensnared a much larger population in ubiquitous computer records and registries that never forget : 67 million Americans ( 28% of the adult population ) now have criminal records with fingerprints on file.

The criminal justice system is ultimately, a way of the states imposing pain on those who break its rules. But that pain must have limits. Our current pattern of unbridled punishment of entire populations, not individual crimes, is the greater culprit that threatens public safety. This out of control punitiveness ( even if disguised as strength or resolve) is devouring our children and damaging the fabric of life in many American communities – especially the poorest minority urban communities that disproportionately inhabit death row and fuel our huge  prison populations. We must find ways to gain some control over our own vengeful spirit, set limits on the use of imprisonment, and end this epidemic of self mutilation that we have imposed on ourselves.


Ernest Drucker is Professor Emeritus of Family and Social Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine ; Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health; and Scholar in Residence in the Department of Criminal Justice , John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York. He is author of A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America ( The New Press. 2011)


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