Lethal detention

Is it justice?

By: Derrel Myers

Derrel Myers is a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a member of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights and a long-time civil rights and antiwar activist. He lost his only son Jo Jo in 1996 when a still unknown assailant shot him. Derrel has committed his life to speaking out, not only against the death penalty, but also against an unequal society that breeds violence. Here Derrel takes up the question of harsh punishments--what is the basis for the "tough on crime "policies over the past twenty years and are they a solution to crime?

In the May issue of the New Abolitionist, an article by Marlene Martin titled "Abolition: How do we make our case?" raised important issues facing abolitionists today. How best do we advance our cause? Do we have to craft our appeal to more conservative quarters in order to get closer to abolition? Or is doing so paving a road to abolition that is fraught with misguided and sometimes offensive arguments?

 Marlene points out that some in the abolitionist movement are pointing to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences as a quid pro quo, or substitute, for capital punishment. This discussion also has much to do with who we think can or will bring about the changes we want. It's a very good time in this country to explore these questions.

 The case against all lethal detention

Polls show that around 68 percent of Americans support the death penalty, but if offered the substitute of LWOP, support for capital punishment drops to around 50 percent.

An important reason for retaining the death penalty is that prosecutors want it on the books as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations. Many of those serving LWOP and other life sentences made such bargains.

A segment of the abolitionist movement has offered the idea that we should promote LWOP as a way of winning to our side crime victims' families who seek harsh punishment, or who say they suffer because of lengthy appeals processes--as well as people who oppose ever releasing anyone convicted of capital crimes, politicians who fear appearing to be soft on crime, and district attorneys, prosecutors and police who want to be seen as successful protectors of public safety.

I fear that promoting LWOP will not change enough of them to make a difference because in so many cases they basically want revenge and the harshest punishment possible.

Another argument put forward in favor of LWOP replacing capital punishment is that it will save money. But that's because LWOP cases do not offer the costly but correct procedural safeguards required in capital cases.

 LWOP is not a "just" alternative to capital punishment. And it is not the only non-capital punishment that amounts to lethal detention. Already 132,000 prisoners are serving life terms and the vast majority of them will die in prison. Some 44,000 are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes. Nearly 10,000 of these people with life sentences were found guilty of crimes committed as juveniles.

As for those with LWOP sentences, there are 37,000 in all, 2,484 of whom were juvenile offenders. According to law, all will die in custody. No matter what we call them, these are all death sentences.

 We have become the most punishing nation in the world, with the largest number of prisoners (an eightfold increase to 2.3 million since 1970) and the highest per capita rate of incarceration, one in 100 adults.

For 5,000 years, governments have promoted a formula of punishment to deter and reduce violence, and it hasn't worked yet.

There are two basic reasons we imprison people who are guilty of violent crime. One is to protect society from further violence by confining the guilty until they are no longer a threat, which is done in most countries. I agree with that reason. The other is to punish the guilty, which I don't agree with, whether it's meant for deterrence or revenge. Deterrence is a myth, and revenge is more violence.

 Dr. James Gilligan, who worked 25 years with the most violent men in the Massachusetts prison system and is the author of Preventing Violence, asserts that the most violent men he met, without exception, were the most punished as children. A huge step toward ending violence could begin by ending punishment, especially the punishment of children, and ending the structural violence of poverty, inequality and racism.

Forty years of "get tough on crime" reaction

It's important to frame this discussion in a larger context. What is the backdrop to the tough-on-crime policies that have been effect in this country for the past 40 years?

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the owners and policymakers of this country witnessed what to them was a terrifying scenario of dual crises that threatened their wealth and their power.

 Economic crisis: On the one hand, they had lost their post-Second World War competitive edge over European and Japanese economies. Relative to those economies, U.S. corporations' rate of profit was falling behind, reducing available reinvestment capital. While the Cold War and the war in Vietnam were profitable for some industries, taxes and inflation, both features of a war economy, hampered other important areas of economic growth.

Neo-con think tanks, during these years, developed a plan later to be known as neo-liberalism. Their plan has much to do with the "get tough on crime" incarceration binge of the last 40 years.

Social Crisis: On the other hand, by 1968, millions of Americans were rebelling against long-suffered injustices. To wit: A massive rejection of the witch-hunt that was aimed at crushing union strength, political opponents and any other challenge to the status quo. The civil rights/Black Power movement electrified and inspired several generations of Americans of every race.

Massive numbers of youth, including active duty GIs and veterans, opposed the war in Vietnam, the draft and mainstream values and lifestyles. Millions of women stood up for liberation from the degrading fetters of sexism and patriarchy. The Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement came roaring out of the closet to right the many wrongs of homophobia.

With the Tet Offensive in February of 1968 by the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, it became clear that the most powerful military force in the history of the world could not defeat the people of Vietnam. No wonder they were concerned for their future.

These are the basics of what became the neo-liberal plan to accomplish two very related goals: reestablish American prestige and economic competitiveness around the world and law and order at home:

Reduce hourly wages by weakening the trade union movement, outsourcing jobs, artificially manipulating inflation through the Federal Reserve, and creating a "surplus population" of unemployed who are forced into competition for low-paying jobs and poverty.

Cut social wages by reducing or ending social programs like AFDC, education, food stamps, health care, subsidized housing, Social Security, upkeep of infrastructure, etc. Millions would thus be forced to accept less than living wages, homelessness, military service or prison, all of which, of course, contribute to an increase in despair, drug use, crime and violence.

Deregulate the affairs of business by rescinding laws that protect workers, investors, homeowners, the environment and the commons, and return to the "good" unregulated days of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Incarcerate. The policymakers knew these regressive changes would drastically reduce the quality of life for millions. They also saw many of those millions in a state of rebellion against war, racism and poverty.

While the leaders of both major parties were beating the drums against big government, big social spending and big debt, they were pushing legislation to heap billions into the big-government war on crime and the big government war on drugs, which were euphemisms for more government regulation of our lives, the militarizing of law enforcement, and harsher punishment of more and more citizens.

The radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s convinced them that we, rebellious millions of Americans, were a serious threat to their maintenance of privilege and power.

Making change

To whom should we look to help end these injustices?

We should continue after the model of the first abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the feminist, LGBT and antiwar movements.

As in Kenneth Foster Jr.'s case, we will eventually find most of our allies, not in high and powerful places, but in the neglected, underserved working class neighborhoods, where most crime victims live, in those schools where the most disrespect and punishment is served and the least opportunity offered, in colleges where expectations are high, and among families and prisoners in the visiting rooms of America's prisons, where nearly everyone on both sides of the security glass is a crime victim.

In these places, we will find the allies with the great need and the potential power to change this world.