Multiple studies reveal that our current U.S. legal system negatively impacts communities of color.
A disproportionate number of people of color face both prison time and capital punishment. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, 67.8 percent of the 2010 prison population was non-white.
That people of color unduly fill our prisons should not be surprising when we consider a 2009 study conducted by the Pew Center, which showed that compared to non-Hispanic whites, Latinos and Latinas are two to three times more likely to experience unjustifiable stops, insulting language, excessive force or corrupt activities by police.
This finding holds true for repeated experiences as well – especially verbal abuse, excessive force and unjustifiable stops.
One in 27 Hispanics are now incarcerated, compared to one in 45 non-Hispanic whites.
The reality of prison populations disproportionately composed of people of color has led organizations like Amnesty International to conclude that the United States judicial system is discriminatory.
While most murders in this country are intraracial (the murderer and victim are of the same race), of the 1,283 prisoners executed from 1976 through 2012, 42 of the 724 whites executed (5.8 percent) were of a white defendant killing a victim of color, while 332 of the 559 people of color executed (57.6 percent) were of defendants of color executed for killing white victims.
These disproportionate percentages have led Amnesty International in 2003 to conclude that “Beyond any reasonable doubt, the U.S. death penalty continues to reflect the deep-rooted prejudices of the society that condones its use. Amnesty International cannot find any evidence that current legal safeguards eliminate racial bias in the application of the death penalty.”
When racism and ethnic discrimination plays such a leading role as to who is executed and who is not, we should expect the innocent to also be put to death. Since 1973, a total of 142 people on death row have been freed after being exonerated due to DNA or some other type of evidence.
The arbitrary and discriminatory manner by which the death penalty is imposed has meant that even if it could be argued that the state has the right to execute our worst criminals, the state has lost its moral authority to do so.
Capital punishment is also financially unsustainable. A California study recently revealed that since 1978, the state spent $4 billion to carry out 13 capital punishment sentences.
Two individuals in 1978, John V. Briggs and Donald J. Heller, are most responsible for the success of Proposition 7 that reinstated the death penalty.
Today, Heller, along with Briggs’ son, Ron, are the two biggest advocates to reverse what they have come to recognize as the biggest mistake of their lives, mainly due to the fiscal cost.
If not for moral reasons, capital punishment needs to be abolished due to budgetary prudence.
Our nation needs to follow the lead of states that have arrived at similar conclusions. Seventeen states, thus far, have abolished the death penalty and 13 states have not executed anyone in the past five years.
Thus, some 30 states are leading the nation in a new national consensus that recognizes the implementation of capital punishment is financially prohibited, how capital punishment is applied remains unfair, and the very act itself is cruel and unusual.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology.