The current political climate has been racked with controversy surrounding capital punishment. While some believe that the death penalty should be reinstated as an appropriate punishment for those who have committed heinous crimes, many others believe that the death penalty is a violation of civil rights and should be abolished.
Although there are several issues with capital punishment, this essay will focus solely on the topic of racism within the death penalty itself.
To begin, racism is defined as “the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (American Civil Liberties Union). So, in essence, racism is the unjust treatment of people because of their skin color.
Capital punishment, commonly referred to as the death penalty, is the lawful infliction of death as a punishment and is the ultimate form of discipline within the criminal justice system. (Death Penalty Information Center).
Although there are several issues surrounding capital punishment, racism within the death penalty remains one of the most controversial and widely debated. In fact, racist attitudes have been found to influence the U.S. justice system as a whole since at least 1989, when research from multiple university studies revealed that those with the most punitive attitudes against crime were also those with the greatest racism.
Many believe that because African Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of death row inmates, this indicates that racism influences who receives the death penalty and how they are treated once they do. For example, in 2003, it was reported that African Americans make up 12% of Ohio’s population but account for almost 50% of the state’s Condemned (The Death Penalty Information Center). Also, numerous studies have shown that young African American men are up to 10 times more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts.
In addition, nearly 80% of all death row inmates were on either public assistance or unemployed in the months prior to their arrest, and many reports indicate that the majority of capital defendants suffer from mental illness or intellectual disability – two common afflictions to minority communities that are often neglected or mistreated in the justice system.
What is the cause of this disparity? According to a study conducted by the University of Washington, people with more significant racial biases are more likely to support capital punishment due to their fear that African Americans are violent and dangerous when compared to Caucasians. The study also found that, when asked about crime in the abstract, those with more significant racial biases were less likely to support crime prevention efforts.
These findings suggest that people with racist attitudes are more likely to favor the death penalty because they believe that this will prevent African Americans from committing future crimes – regardless of whether or not it is truly merited. The study suggests that this is because people who hold racist attitudes believe that African Americans are inherently less trustworthy, intelligent, and moral than people of other races.
In addition, studies from Brown University show how the media also influences views towards race and crime in society by disproportionately focusing on crimes committed by African Americans relative to Caucasians. This results in a misperception that black citizens commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime when in reality – depending on the year – only a slightly higher percentage of murders are committed by African Americans.
To further prove this point, numerous studies from universities around the USA have found that defendants are twice as likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white instead of black. These studies have also indicated that prosecutors were three times more likely to seek the death penalty when the defendant was African American.
Unfortunately, due to racism within the justice system, people of color are less likely to be able to afford or retain adequate legal counsel and are often sentenced to longer prison terms than their white counterparts – regardless of the severity of the crime committed.
Once in prison, African American inmates are also disproportionately affected by violence and violate parole at a much higher rate than Caucasians, resulting in them serving longer sentences. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans serve almost as much time in prison for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession (58 months) than they do for violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, and assault (66 months).
These shocking statistics are not unique to the African American or black population of the USA. For example, a recent paper from Brandeis University reports that Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants were once as likely to be sentenced to death as African Americans are today.
This is because, historically, the U.S. criminal justice system has been used to enforce discrimination against non-traditional or emerging immigrant groups – especially those who have a history of being discriminated against in America, such as African Americans.
For example, Hispanics are currently the fastest-growing minority group in the USA, comprising 18.5% of the population as of 2019. As this community continues to grow larger and larger, they will inevitably become an increasingly important section of society – including within the criminal justice system. If this occurs, it is likely that the number of Hispanics sentenced to death – at least in proportion to their percentage of the population – will increase.
While racism within the death penalty still disproportionately affects people of color, many organizations are dedicated to ensuring that all defendants are afforded fair trials regardless of their race – including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Equal Justice Initiative. These organizations are vital to ensuring that the wheels of justice turn fairly for all individuals regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or social status.
Despite these findings, many people continue to support capital punishment because they believe it will deter potential criminals from committing future crimes and that the death penalty is an effective way to punish perpetrators for their wrongdoing. However, most social science research shows that the death penalty does not deter crime and, in fact, can be more expensive than life in prison due to extended legal proceedings.
Furthermore, the use of the death penalty is often disproportionately applied to African Americans – despite their low percentage of actual crimes committed when compared with Caucasians. Because of these facts, many people believe that racism plays a significant role in determining who is sentenced to death and who receives more lenient punishments.
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