Discrimination Within the Death Penalty and Criminal Justice Term Paper

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Death Penalty and Race

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Arguments have raged for decades about the use of capital punishment in the United States, with some holding that there is a need for society to express its disapproval for certain acts by ending the life of the convicted person, while others see this as an act outside the boundaries of what a civilized society should do. The discussion can be much more complex, beginning with assumptions about why the death penalty is used at all, how well these reasons can be supported, how likely it is that a mistake will be made, and so on. Fairness is always an issue in these discussions, referring to fairness to the accused, fairness to the victim, and even fairness to society at large and to any future victims if a murderer is free to kill again. The death penalty has been suspended at times, as after a major Supreme Court case in them 1970s when the criteria for application of the death penalty were challenged and then changed, but legislators in the states and the federal government keep reinstating it and trying to do so in a way that will pass judicial review. For the most part, such legislation is in response to public pressure for a solution to crime, if not for punishment that is simply more retributive because of public anger about one case or many cases. More and more challenges are being brought on the basis of racial disparity, on the perception that minorities are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to capital punishment and also more likely to be executed than whites. The argument is also tied to larger concerns about how the justice system treats minority defendants in all types of case, and inevitably the discussion is further tied to the wider issue of whether or not the death penalty should be applied at all.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Discrimination Within the Death Penalty and Criminal Justice Assignment

One of the primary reasons for opposing the death penalty is that its finality does not allow the state to remedy errors. Indeed, the rhetoric of capital punishment does not allow for error or may even accommodate it as the price society is willing to pay. In recent years, we have seen many people released from death row because of new evidence, much of it DNA evidence, and had these people been executed, no remedy would have been possible.

Other arguments relate to the fairness of the death penalty as it is applied, and it has been argued that the death penalty is racially skewed, that application of the death penalty is arbitrary and capricious, that medical doctors are made into hypocrites by their participation, and that there are religious reasons for avoiding the death penalty. All of these are good reasons, but the best reason remains that making an error is simply too great a price to pay for assuaging the fears of the public, when in fact the death penalty does nothing to make society safer at all.

One of the theoretical models of criminal justice cited by Kraska (2003) and often used in analyzing the issue of the application of the death penalty to minorities is Criminal Justice as Oppression, a perspective often included in feminist critiques of society as well. This is based in part on the conflict model holding that society is best characterized by the existence of conflict so that criminal laws and the administration of those laws result from power struggles between competing groups and opposing interests. In such a competition, the minority is clearly outmanned and affected by discriminatory practices in a variety of ways.

Criminal Justice as Oppression

Alan Freeman also comments on a specific form of institutional racism when he writes,

It is sadly ironic that law, which offered for a time a promise of liberation from America's historic reality of caste-based oppression, and did secure some rights of equality, has also served to legitimize the persistence of rampant, racially identifiable inequality (Freeman, 1990, p. 122).

In an interview with Justice Bruce M. Wright of the New York Supreme Court, himself a black male, an area where blacks are not sufficiently related to the criminal justice system emerges and shows one of the reasons why the problems persist. Justice Wright answers a question as to why such a high percentage of black males are in jail and what to do about it:

Get more Blacks on the police forces. The police protect white property and regard us with suspicion. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that it's all right for the police to stop an interstate bus and say to a passenger, "May I search your baggage?" Even though they have no reasonable grounds to believe that the person is transporting contraband. And who do [the police] stop? Black males. We are the ones who fit the police profile of criminals (Payne, 1991, p. 53).

Blacks are criminals and they are victims, but few are part of the justice system designed to deal with the issue. Blacks remain disenfranchised to a large degree so that their problems are seen as peripheral to the interests of white society and as impinging on that society primarily to the degree that black crime spills into white neighborhoods.

Blacks may also be omitted from participation in the trial process except as defendants as many experts suspect that blacks are often deliberately excluded from juries in capital cases. In 1977, a Georgia district attorney wrote a memo instructing jury commissioners to under-represent blacks in jury pools for murder cases. In 1988, during an investigation of bias, a district attorney in Jackson, Mississippi testified under oath that it was his policy to rid juries of "as many blacks as possible." Death-row inmates who claim that they have been unfairly convicted traditionally turn to the federal courts for redress. Since 1976, 42% of all state-imposed death sentences have been overturned on appeal, usually on the grounds that the defendant's constitutional rights have been violated, including claims that race was a factor in jury selection. Recently, though, the federal courts have become much less sympathetic to such claims. In a landmark 1987 decision, the Court ruled that while statistical data did show that killers of whites are more likely to receive the death sentence than killers of blacks, that fact was not enough to prove intentional discrimination (Monagle, 1992, pp. 13-15).

Though some whites think of blacks as prone to crime and as inherently criminal, the fact that there seem to be more black criminals than white is a relatively recent development. In 1930, 76.7% of inmates in our penal institutions were white, and as recently as 1970 the number was 60.5%. In contrast, blacks made up 22.4% of the prison population in 1930 and now make up a staggering 45.3%. This suggests that black men were much more law-abiding a century ago, and in fact, controls exerted by churches, the authority of elders, and community pride combined to deter conduct that could land black men in trouble. Given the depth of poverty and endless humiliations in the South of the time, this discipline is all the more striking. Hacker (1992) suggests one reason for the change when he notes:

The black family is disintegrating, while the white family remains intact. Since Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report found black families trapped in a "tangle of pathology," conditions seem to have gotten worse. Two-thirds of black babies are now born outside of wedlock, and more than half of black youngsters live only with their mother; and in most of these households she has never been married (Hacker, 1992, p. 21).

There appear to be a number of forces at work to contribute to the deterioration of black life to add to the rolls of both criminals and crime victims in those neighborhoods.

Statistical evidence shows that blacks are involved in crime both as perpetrators and victims in a percentage larger than their proportion in society. There is some evidence that blacks are also treated inequitably by the criminal justice system at all levels, from encounters with police on the street to sentencing, and specifically with reference to the application of the death penalty according to the race of the victim. Researchers seeking some reason for this have identified economic forces in the black community and the deteriorating structure of the family unit in that community as well as residual institutional racism in American society, though there are also researchers who would argue with some of these conclusions.

Capital Punishment

The issue of capital punishment has been debated from a number of perspectives, and one of the more recent attacks on the death penalty has come from those who believe that the punishment has not been applied equally and that there is a racial component in the way some offenders are treated by the system. To date, this concept has not prevailed with the U.S. Supreme Court, and the major cases that reached the Supreme Court based on this theory failed to persuade the Justices. Death penalty… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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