On Tuesday night, many Michigan students saw some of the faces behind the juvenile justice system when Toshi Kazma presented his photographic series called “Kids on Death Row.” I could not attend because I was helping create a play with eight incarcerated youth at Maxey Boys Training School.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the death penalty for minors, but four justices and many others in this country would still have them killed. I wonder how many of these people have talked to or even seen the kids on their death list. I don’t know the crimes of the guys in my workshop, but I have seen their humanity and would be horrified if anyone like them were killed in cold blood by our government. While my partner and I facilitate a workshop in a juvenile facility, other students in Buzz Alexander’s English 319 class hold workshops in inner-city high schools and adult prisons. Most of these people have similar backgrounds: They’re passed from shitty school to juvenile facility to prison; for some, this downward spiral only stops with the death penalty.
Before getting to the underlying problem with our justice system, I will call bullshit on two common arguments for the death penalty.
Retributivists claim “eye for an eye” for murder, but we don’t rape rapists in this country; we don’t torture torturers (in theory). In “Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty,” Jeffrey Reiman says that even if death is a just punishment for murder, we as members of a civilized society should abandon the practice. Along with rape and torture, we must affirm that death is a punishment too inhumane to be used by our government on our own people.
The deterrence effect of capital punishment has not been proven: There is no way to attribute fluctuating homicide levels to capital punishment more than other factors. I doubt many — if any — people would be deterred by capital punishment who would not already be deterred by life imprisonment. Reiman suggests that abolishing the death penalty would itself be a deterrent — by showing, not telling, people that killing is wrong.
Reiman sums up my fundamental objection to capital punishment and the American justice system in general: “Since I believe that the vast majority of murders in America are a predictable response to the frustrations and disabilities of impoverished social circumstances, and since I believe that impoverishment is a remediable injustice from which others in America benefit, I believe that we have no right to exact the full cost of murders from our murderers until we have done everything possible to rectify the conditions that produce their crimes.” How dare we neglect the poor in this country, by denying them decent education and health care, then punish them when they break the very laws that keep them down. Congress recently voted against raising the minimum wage, which doesn’t cover basic costs of living, and yet the lawmakers increased their own wages seven times in the last eight years. These are some of the reasons why, with 2.2 million incarcerated people in this country, we have one of the worst track records in the world for crime and punishment.
On Wednesday night, child advocate Jonathan Kozol spoke at the League about the vast inequities in education. While politicians give their own children the best education money can buy, they deny funding to inner-city kids at segregated schools. Kozol used the term “apartheid” to describe our schools and said we have regressed beyond Brown v. Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson: We now have separate and unequal schools. Anyone who has visited a school in Detroit or any other major city knows this firsthand. It is no coincidence, then, that our prisons have become increasingly black over the years, along with death row. People can try to deny the racial disparity of the justice system, but when I toured a juvenile detention facility in Philadelphia over spring break, I saw only a few white kids. When I walked into the gym at Maxey for a poetry reading honoring Black History Month, I saw a room filled predominantly with blacks.
I shudder to think that even one of these boys, regardless of his crimes, will one day face extermination by our government. If one of them does and current practices remain the same, he will be kept on surveillance before his execution to prevent him from committing suicide; he will be physically examined to make sure he’s healthy enough to be killed; he may be offered tranquilizers to numb the torture of his final moments; then two executioners may push separate lethal buttons simultaneously so that neither person feels solely responsible for killing him. But all of us in this country, through civil obedience and tax dollars, are helping push those deadly buttons. We lay our innocent heads at night and thank Uncle Sam for keeping the real bad guys locked up.
Cravens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org