A highly publicized clemency hearing was held for Stan “Tookie” Williams yesterday to decide whether the convicted murderer and founder of one of America’s most notorious gangs should be put to death next Tuesday. The hearing’s outcome was not yet available as this column went to press. But regardless of the outcome, this is an important symbolic hearing for convicts across the country. Unlike in most clemency hearings, Williams is not blaming an unfair trial, manipulated evidence or racism for his death sentence. In fact, his plea for mercy is not even based on his guilt or innocence in the murder of four people over 24 years ago – though he still maintains his innocence.

Sarah Royce

Instead, Williams and an army of supporters are arguing that he has not only reformed during his time in prison, but that he has become a positive influence on society. Since being in prison, the former leader of the Crips gang has written several children’s books; brokered a respite between the Crips and another violent gang, the Bloods; and has been nominated for several awards – including several literary honors and the Nobel Peace Prize. We certainly shouldn’t condone Tookie’s actions 24 years ago, but we should recognize what he has done since then.

Some skeptics maintain that Tookie is taking us all for a ride, while others simply believe that murder is murder, and he deserves the punishment to which he was sentenced. Still others believe – and this is perhaps the most convincing argument – that granting clemency to an “arbitrary” case will weaken the deterrent value of capital punishment. The more fundamental question of whether capital punishment should continue to be legal is much too complex an issue to delve into here. However, study after study of the deterrent effect of the death penalty has shown an incredibly weak correlation between executions and murder rates. Considering that of the hundreds of thousands of murders committed since the death penalty was reinstated 30 years ago only 4,315 individuals are currently on death row or have been executed, it seems that not only do many murders go unsolved, but the sentencing of the death penalty is also rather arbitrary. Such a low probability of actually being sentenced to death sends an equally dangerous message to potential murderers.

The more important issue in the Williams case is his story of reformation. The fact that a man condemned to death has decided to use his experiences to help steer young people away from the mistakes he has made demonstrates a value that should be the basis for our penal system: the opportunity for reform and rehabilitation. Prison terms give inmates plenty of time to consider their crimes and an opportunity to change and make amends by being a positive influence on society. It is important to hold onto the notion that Tookie will serve as an example to inmates serving nonlife sentences.

Instead of demanding Tookie’s death, we should be embracing the idea that people have the capacity to repent their actions and change their ways. Reformation and subsequent parole should serve as incentive for inmates to better themselves while in prison. Wouldn’t it be great if more inmates took Tookie’s actions to heart and used their time to earn high school or college degrees? Instead, prisons are serving as graduate schools for advanced degrees in drug dealing, giving young dealers the opportunity to network and swap business tips. It is no coincidence that most convicts are re-arrested within three years of release due to the overwhelming rate of criminals returning to crime. Most have simply had no training in any legitimate career field, and the only life they know is that of crime.

Some argue that by sparing Tookie, Gov.Schwarzenegger threatens the sentencing power of juries. Instead, Schwarzenegger will be sending a message to incarcerated criminals everywhere that reform is an option. The highly public case of Tookie should serve as a wake-up call for a redirection in funding to more constructive uses of prison time. Let us also consider that our prisons are overflowing with predominately poor black prisoners – often products of the abysmal inner-city environments in which they were raised. Most didn’t have the option of receiving a decent K-12 education. Isn’t it possible that many of this country’s prisoners are decent people steered astray by unfortunate environmental factors? Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to change? Many will not, and for those we can agree that perhaps they should be locked away where they can’t pose a danger to society. My case for clemency for Williams is not based on a personal fondness for the guy, but on the hope that his life in prison will serve as a beacon of hope for young inmates around the country.

 

Slade can be reached at bslade@umich.edu.

 

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