Commentary: Justice is biggest reason to end death penalty

Beyond arguments of cost and deterence, the issue of racial justice should matter most in our state.

By Sheley Secrest

Since the 16th century, Lady Justice has often been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold represents impartiality, the ideal that justice should be applied without regard to wealth, power or other status. However, to the NAACP and for many blacks living in Washington state, when it comes to race and the determination of life or death, Lady Justice sees clearly in vivid color.

Case in point, consider the race of the eight inmates awaiting execution under Washington state’s death penalty statute. African Americans are disproportionately represented on death row because jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. As a horrifying result, black people, who make up 4 percent of the population, make up nearly 38 percent of those on death row. According to the Beckket Report, the race of the victim affects who receives the death penalty, with homicides of white victims over four times more likely to result in execution.

Justice should be color blind. This legislative session, the NAACP has joined together with lawmakers and community stakeholders to balance the scales of fairness. Senate Bill 6052 would repeal the state’s death penalty laws. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have already abolished this cruel and unusual punishment, and more states are soon to follow.

Eliminating the death penalty is not only racially just, it is fiscally sound. According to the Washington State Bar Association report titled, “Executing Justice,” the study found that in the 79 death penalty cases brought between 1981 and 2006, the jury imposed the death sentence in 30 cases. Of those, 19 were reversed on appeal and seven had appeals pending at the time. Four cases resulted in executions, three of which involved defendants who had waived their right to appeal.

The bar association report also found that during the initial trial and on direct appeal, the costs to prosecution and defense in death penalty cases were more than $750,000 more costly than non-capital punishment cases, costs that didn’t include potential subsequent appeals to the state Supreme Court, the federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lesson learned: Despite extraordinary efforts by the courts and enormous expense to taxpayers, the modern death penalty remains slow, costly and uncertain. The NAACP believes that money wasted on death penalty cases should be better spent on proven crime-prevention strategies like community-oriented policing, economic development and public health services.

The NAACP seeks real solutions to crime. The death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to violent crime and aggravated murder. Violent crime remains well below rates seen in the 1980s and early 1990s. And even compared to a decade ago, violent crime in 2016 is 18 percent lower than it was in 2007, and the murder rate is 6 percentage points lower than it was then.

Now is the time for Washington to make justice racially blind. Ending the death penalty will remove executions given to black defendants that white defendants who have committed similar crimes receive shelter from. Ending the death penalty brings financial resources to the state budget. That is money that we need to put to use on community policing and other proven methods of crime prevention. We need our law makers to focus on solutions that actually work, not false deterrents.

The NAACP looks forward to joining the movement across the nation in creating a criminal justice system that all can believe in. Together, we can make sure justice is blind.

Sheley Secrest is a vice president with the Washington, Oregon, Alaska State Area Conference of the NAACP. She lives in the Seattle area.

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