The Death Penalty: California and Beyond

By: Laura Owsiany

On Wednesday, a federal judge in California ruled that the death penalty as practiced by the state was unconstitutional. California’s number of death-row inmates is now 740, according to the National Journal, but very few will end up being executed. Since the moratorium on the death penalty in California was lifted in 1976, only 13 people have been executed, leaving the rest to wait through slow and painful litigation under the constant threat of death. The court therefore ruled the death penalty cruel and unusual in the case of California, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The case is expected to be appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning the ruling would then affect all states in the 9th Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and of course, California. The case might then move to the Supreme Court, deciding the legality of the death penalty for the entire nation. Eighteen states have already abolished it, including Alaska and Hawaii of the 9th Circuit.

Recently, the politics of those aged 18-29 have also been under scrutiny. A few months ago, Pew’s massive survey on millennials showed that young people, especially in regards to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage, are significantly more liberal than older demographics. One key issue that young people often neglect, however, is the death penalty, which directly affects the lives of death row inmates and the U.S. criminal justice system.

A majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but this number has been dropping for the past 10 years, according to Pew. Those aged 18-29 support it the least, at a couple percent less than average. However, today’s youth are no more liberal on the death penalty compared to average than they have been for almost 60 years. A study published this year at Columbia University showed that from 1953-2006, young people supported the death penalty at a rate of 3% less than average consistently over time.

Why are today’s young people, who are more diverse, wary of traditional institutions and supposedly more liberal than ever, unconcerned with the death penalty?

Obvious ethical and moral issues belie the practice. The state intentionally takes the life of a human being. Two-thirds of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, according to Amnesty International, and the United States remains the only industrialized, western nation to continue the practice.

The 2011 case of Troy Davis recalls the injustices of the system. Davis was executed in September 2011 in Georgia with no physical evidence to establish his guilt. Several witnesses had recanted their testimony, saying they were coerced into signing original affidavits testifying against Davis. Since 1973, 140 others have been released from death row after additional evidence proved their wrongful conviction, but Davis was not so lucky.

Besides the debatable ethics of the practice, the death penalty is more expensive than life incarceration without parole, and no more effective. A death penalty case requires a two-step trial that also frequently gets appealed, taking up more government resources. Investigative costs are also greater, but states without the death penalty did not show any greater homicide rates than those with it, according to the FBI.

The death penalty is charged with racism and classism. 77% of death row inmates have been executed for killing white victims, according to Amnesty International, even though whites only comprise 50% of homicide victims overall. 82% of executions since 1976 have taken place in Southern states. Almost no death row inmates could afford their own trial attorney.

This issue is an expression of inequality, like so many other social issues on which young people more frequently take a stand. It is difficult to sympathize with criminals, but injustice will live on as long as such the irreversible punishment as state-sanctioned killing continues to exist. The death penalty is the height of the retributive justice system, not reliant on fact or effectiveness, but revenge. If the practice is to change, young people ought to push the issue to the fore of discussion. Abolition is moving forward, and we can either charge ahead or follow at history’s heels.

Image: AP