California’s Death Penalty Prevents True Community Justice

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Photo: Lolita Parker, Jr., Parker Digital Imaging

Last month, I joined leaders from very different communities who came together in a public forum to say that it is time for California to end the death penalty. Senator Loni Hancock of Berkeley must have agreed that it was time because, just a few weeks later, she introduced SB490, a bill that would place death penalty repeal on California’s 2012 ballot. The Assembly Public Safety Committee passed the bill on July 17. It now moves onto Appropriations.

At last month’s event, I spoke as a leader in the movement against gang violence and as a father who lost his son to senseless murder. I was joined by Reverend Eugene Rivers, Pastor of the Azusa Christian Community with years of experience as an activist and minister for social justice, and Professor Charles Ogletree, founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Together we represented the wide range of activists working to end the violence on our streets, a faith community focused on Christ’s commitment to justice in the world, as well as a legal community working to secure for everyone the Constitutional promise of equal justice under law.

Our combined experience led us to the same conclusion: California’s death penalty prevents true community justice at every stage.

First and foremost, the application of the death penalty in California remains fundamentally unequal and unfair. Despite decades of attempted fixes, from legislative to judicial, the death penalty is applied unevenly. Race and income continue to affect the implementation of capital punishment and virtually all death row inmates are poor and wealth remains the surest way to avoid a death sentence. It is not a coincidence that 65 percent of the people on death row in California are people of color.

The fact that our criminal justice system tilts toward the poor and people of color, despite many efforts to curb that trend, also raises the concern that we might take an innocent life. Three years ago, the independent, non-partisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice assessed that risk and reported that the death penalty in California carries with it the grave risk of killing an innocent person. The Commission offered reforms to help prevent that tragedy, yet in three years, not a single one of the reforms has been implemented because of the budget crisis. Nonetheless, our death penalty system and the people invested in it still hold power over life and death. Indeed, 78 men and women have been sentenced to die in California since the Commission first issued its report.

Just as troubling is the way the death penalty affects our ability to provide justice to the victims of crime and their families. When a person is sentenced to death, the family of the victim is likewise sentenced to a lifetime of uncertainty and repeated appeals. In fact, in California execution is almost never carried out and death row inmates are more likely to die of old age or illness.

The alternative of life without the possibility of parole, on the other hand, is both final and immediate. It is a sentence that allows communities to focus their attention on the victims and their families rather than the legal process and the perpetrator.

As a father who lost a son to murder, I know what it means to want justice. In 2004, I got the phone call every parent fears. My oldest son, Terrell, while home on winter break from Humboldt State University, had been shot to death. I was devastated. I wanted the perpetrator to be held accountable for Terrell’s death. However, seven years later, the perpetrator has never been caught and presumably still walks the streets. While I grow more committed to seeing justice through every day, I know that the death penalty is not the answer. I don’t want to tie Terrell’s memory to another act of senseless violence.

The great irony, of course, is that while the state props up a failed system that discriminates against African-Americans and Latinos and anyone who is poor, it fails to provide justice to victims. It carries the risk of executing the innocent and to top it off, as taxpayers, we are all expected to foot the bill and pay $1 billion every five years or $126 million each year. According to the Commission, California’s death penalty costs ten times more than life without the possibility of parole.

Such an expensive commitment to a dysfunctional system boggles the mind, but it shocks the conscience. Especially when considered alongside debilitating cuts to social services and the unmet needs of low-income Californians. What if instead we invested this money in effective violence prevention programs like the anti-gang programs I work with?

The time has come for California to replace the death sentences with life without the possibility of parole and require inmates to work and pay restitution to the victims’ families. This smart, safe, and simple reform can be a vital step in California’s road to economic recovery and a turn toward the road to community safety and justice.

Aqeela Sherrills

Aqeela Sherrills lost his son to homicide in 2004. He was one of the original organizers of the Watts “gang truce” in 1992 and is currently the Southern California Outreach Coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

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