Letter to Merissa about Proposition 34 Repealing Capital Punishment

My niece, Merissa recently wrote to me asking my opinion on Proposition 34, which would replace capital punishent (i.e. "the death penalty) with a sentence of Life without Possibility of Parole.  With her permission, following is the response I wrote:

To Merissa, my sweet and amazing niece, who I helped raise from the day you were born:

I am flattered that you asked for my opinion on California Proposition 34, which would replace the capital punishment (i.e. "the death penalty") with a sentence of Life without Possibility of Parole. As you know, I worked as a peace officer in California Prisons for 23 years. Since I was your neighbor for 10 of those years, you probably remember that I did not wear a uniform. That is because I was not a "guard" (they actually prefer to be called Correctional Officers). I'd tell you my official title, but that wouldn't tell you much about what I did. My job was like a Parole Officer, except I worked with inmates in the prisons before they were released, rather than afterward. So I worked directly with inmates daily, often getting to know their background, substance abuse history and criminal history very well; understand their attitudes towards their crimes and their victims; and get to know them individually.

You might think because of my experience that I would support capital punishment. At first I did. Partly because I felt that, for my safety and that of others peace officers, their needs to be an ultimate penalty for killing a peace officer. If someone is already serving life in prison, what do they have to lose by killing me? Or somebody who has committed a horrible crime and is facing arrest and a lengthy term, what do they have to lose by killing the police officer who is trying to arrest them? And shouldn't be a really bad penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes?

But over the years my work helped change the way I looked at captial punishment. But more importantly, my work forced me to really look to my faith for answers to everyday problems I faced working in the prisons. Many people I worked with because very jaded and cynical from working with the worst of criminals who end up in prison. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't worked in a prison or jail, but it's like the people guarding the prison see and read so much bad stuff that they lose faith in human nature. Over time they become a little like the people they guard, not criminally, but psychologically. I saw this right away in others who worked there for years before me, and I didn't want to end up like them. I had no where else to turn, but my faith, for inspiration to go to work everyday, and to make the hundreds of little decisions that would define me as either a cynical person or a person of faith. And if I relied on my faith for the little decisions, then what about the big questions? I had to ask myself, as a Christian, what do I believe about killing? Well, based on my experience with criminals AND my personal faith journey, here are five reasons I can give you for opposing capital punishment:

1)  You can't get around it, the Bible clearly says killing is wrong. It doesn't provide for any exceptions. No wiggle room there.  I think the only possible exception is if you kill someone in the defense of your life or another's life, but the Bible doesn't even give you that. And it doesn't work to ignore the issue and pretend you're not responsible because you're not the one "pulling the switch." It's like being opposed to killing animals but eating steak.  As a member of our society, if you don't oppose the death penalty then you are just as guilty of killing the condemned person as the people on the jury who imposed it, the judge who allows it, the prison staff who facilitate it and the person who "pulls the switch."  Some Christians quote the Old Testament to justify capital punishment, but it's mostly God who goes around killing people and we are not God.  The other's who kill also do a lot of other bad things, so you can't say it's okay to kill because King David did it.

2)  Contrary to arguments of some, capital punishment does NOT deter anybody from committing murder.  I have talked to hundreds of murderers in detail about their motives for committing murder, and NOT ONE of them ever said they were thinking they'd get caught, much less that they might be put to death.  They were a) Overwhelmed with anger at the victim for some reason and couldn't stop themselves; or b) They committed the murder in the course of committing another crime, like a robbery gone bad, and never thought it would come to murder; or c) They are criminally insane and either driven by their inner demons to take someones life, they are incapable of feeling any remorse for their victims, or they don't think laws apply to them.

Sure, you could argue that the ones that were deterred wouldn't be in prison.  But I am convinced that my experience says something basic about human nature:  Most of us stop short of taking someone's life, regardless of the provocation.  Then there are those who may understand murder is wrong, but in a moment of anger or in a specific situation or because they just don't care about life, they lack the self control to stop. You can debate about what caused them to be like this: Is it genetics, upbringing, childhood trauma... But  in the situation or moment, nothing would have deterred them because they were'nt thinking about being caught.

If you think about it, what does it mean when you say someone can be deterred from committing murder by any form of punishment?  Do we think murder is like jaywalking...if we think the police aren't looking it is OK? What kind of person thinks "Gee, I'm thinking I need to murder my wife, but I don't know...if I get caught I might be killed!  I guess I better not do that!"  If one believes people are like this, then I will pray for them because they have a really nihilistic view of people and the world.  My experience with criminals is that 90% are not violent.  They may sell drugs or steal your car stereo to support their drug habit, but if faced with getting caught and sent to prison, they submit to arrest rather than try to kill the officer to escape.  For them, it is like when we jaywalk, except their line of acceptable behavior is a little more extreme.

3) There is absolutely no question that capital punishment wastes tax dollars.  There is something called "Life without Possibility of Parole" which means that they will NEVER be released from prison under any circumstances.  We could house every inmate on "death row" in a normal maximum security prison for the rest of their natural lives for less than it costs to house inmates on death row, especially when you add in all the costs of handling the numerous appeals filed on behalf of death row inmates.  Some people argue that if we limited their appeals and killed them faster, it would save money.  But when you consider the number of inmates who have been sentenced to death and subsequently acquitted, if we are going to have capital punishment we MUST allow exhaustive appeals for every death row inmate to minimize the chance that an innocent person is executed.  Anyway, it is the nature of our justice system that the convicted have the right to appeal.  The alternative is a Russian style justice system where guilt is usually determined BEFORE the trial.

4)  Speaking of innocent people being found guilty of murder and sentenced to death:  There are proven cases where, despite the appellate system, innocent people have been executed.  There was a man in Texas last year whose innocence was clearly proven after his trial but, never-the-less, he was executed after the Supreme Court refused to permit any more appeals and the Governor refused to grant a pardon.  What is the moral cost to us, the stain on our souls, if we allow EVEN ONE innocent person to be executed on our behalf?  Life without Parole can be reversed if the person is subsequently acquitted.  Death cannot be reversed.

5)  Even if none of the above are persuasive, consider this:  THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IS RACIST!!!  I've seen the result first hand. Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested, receive a stiffer plea-bargain offers, go to prison, and yes, to receive capital punishment than are whites.  People of color receive far greater sentences than white people who commit the same crime under the same circumstances.  The causes are many.  Among them:  Inner-city predominantly Black and Latino people usually do not have the resources to hire a good private attorney to represent them; instead they are stuck with an overworked and often younger, inexperienced public defender.  Judges and juries are predominantly white, even in big cities.  Some of the judges and juries could be unconsciously biased, or just plain racist? (Ya think!) Inner-city youth  often grow up in situations that seem hopeless - raised by a single parent who has to work two jobs just to survive, high unemployment, few good role models, dilapidated schools with burned-out teachers who are past caring, gangs, pervasive drug culture - they can easily fall into a pattern of increasingly destructive and illegal behavior.  It is hard to blame a kid entirely when they see no one in their neighborhood succeed, except the local drug dealers who drive nice cars and wear expensive clothes.

Bottom line, we live in a society where racism still exists.  Sometimes there are bigoted people.  More often it is just a social structure that favors people with more money, which roughly correlates with less skin color; what I have always called "institutional racism."  Until we can GUARANTEE that every accused person receives absolutely fair and impartial treatment in the judicial system, I think it is morally bankrupt...no, it is OUTRIGHT SINFUL, to continue executing more people of color than whites.

These are my thoughts, but not necessarily the only way to look at the issue.  I hope it is helpful, but however you vote on this issue, I know you will vote your heart, because I know you have a good heart.

Love you,

Uncle Joel


Chris Bernstien said…
Prop. 34 will kill innocent people:

Those on death row murdered at least 1,279 people, including 230 children & 43 police officers. 211 were raped, 319 robbed, 66 killed by execution, & 47 tortured. 11 murdered other inmates.

A jury of 12 people & a judge confirmed for each inmate that their crimes were so atrocious and they were so dangerous that they not only did not deserve to live, but they were so dangerous that the only safe recourse was the death penalty. Recognizing how dangerous these killers are, the prison houses them 1 person to a cell and does not provide them with work, leaving them locked in their cells most of the day.

Prop. 34 wants to ignore all of this and save $ by placing these killers in less-restrictive prisons where they share cells. They also want to provide them opportunities for work, where they have more freedom, access to other inmates and guards, & more chances to make weapons.

Prop. 34 also destroys any incentive for the 34,000 inmates already serving life without parole to kill again. There would be no death penalty. They are already serving a life sentence, so why not get a name by killing another inmate or a guard?

Prop. 34 also takes away the money for inmates to challenge their convictions. If innocent, they will spend the rest of their life in jail, celled with vicious killers. Prop. 34 will cause more deaths of innocent people– guards and people wrongfully convicted but no longer able to fight it in court.

And they refer to Prop. 34 as the SAFE Act!

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