By: Marlene Martin
One of the earliest brochures our organization produced was titled, “Five Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty.” This short three-fold encapsulated for us the major problems with the death penalty:
- The death penalty is racist.
- The death penalty punishes the poor.
- The death penalty condemns the innocent to die.
- The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime.
- The death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Over our years of organizing, these “five reasons” served, in a way, as our face to the world for why we opposed the death penalty. Of course, there are many, many more reasons to be against the death penalty. But for us, these five reasons stood out as the most egregious—the ones we felt needed to be promoted most visibly.
Now we want to add another:
- The death penalty fails to recognize that guilty people have the potential to change, denying them the opportunity to ever rejoin society.
The death sentence says some people are beyond redemption, beyond second chances, beyond being allowed to live in society. We disagree.
We believe people deserve second chances. We actually think many people are on death row and in our prisons because they never got any first chances. Poverty, racism, neglect, violence and mental illness are all issues impacting who becomes a “criminal.”
We have also seen the amazing transformation of many people behind bars. While on death row, Stan Tookie Williams, a former leader of the notorious Crips gang in Los Angles, renounced his past and wrote a series of anti-gang books geared towards youth. Teachers arranged for Stan to address students in their classrooms—he would speak via telephone hookup, urging the students to stay clear of the gang life.
His message resonated. The youth who listened to him were captivated by his words. His work to curb gang violence was probably more effective than any legislative action our “leaders” have taken. But instead of recognizing the good work Stan was doing, he was executed in 2005.
Countless other prisoners have become artists, poets and talented writers while incarcerated.
Kenneth Hartman is serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence (LWOP). He is an award-winning author who has contributed an excellent piece in this issue (see page 3). He admits he killed a man in a drunken fight as a teenager, but asks the question: Does that mean he could never contribute productively to society? We already think he is doing so behind bars and deserves now to be allowed to do so in society.
Robert Gattis was on death row for nearly 20 years. He admits to killing his girlfriend during a heated dispute. His sentence was recently commuted to LWOP. In prison, Robert helps other prisoners, is involved with his children and continually expresses remorse for his action. Should Robert have to die in prison?
Paul Kali Hickman is serving an LWOP sentence in Delaware. He writes of the transformations he has witnessed during his over 30 years of incarceration:
“I’ve seen it firsthand how prisoners under LWOP and death sentences after five, ten, 15 years of imprisonment were able to dig deep within themselves on their own and, by positive assistance from other prisoners, change their lives around. And all it took was a little education and patience. I strongly feel any sentences over 15 years are cruel and unusual punishment.”
Many other Abolitionists have a different point of view about harsh sentences. For example, the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty touts LWOP sentences as “just” and “sensible.”
But life sentences without ever having the possibility of parole are horrible, abusive, inhumane sentences in themselves. While we may have to accept these sentences when they replace death sentences for commuted death row prisoners, we should do so while raising our objections to them, not justifying them.
These are horrible sentences. We should be honest about that.
There are, of course, people who commit horrible crimes who might never be ready to rejoin society in the ways others can. But instead of executing them or locking them up for the rest of their lives, couldn’t society allow them to live in a structured environment to ensure they don’t harm others or themselves, but one that allows them to be productive to the extent that they can?
Mark Clements serves on the board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and is a part-time staff worker for the group. He wrote this in a previous article about juveniles serving LWOP sentences:
“I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at the age of 16 for a crime I did not commit, and spent 28 years of my life behind bars. I believe that sentencing anyone to LWOP takes away the opportunity of redemption and sentences people to a slow death under horrible conditions.
“Sadly, the conditions inside prisons are not meant to rehabilitate. They are designed to degrade, and that’s exactly what they do.
“I believe everyone can change if given the chance. I have witnessed juvenile lifers like Joseph Rodriguez, Daniel Henney, Bobby Cooley, Jamie Jackson, Jacqueline Montanez, Adolfo Davis and many others achieve greatness, despite having an LWOP sentence. People change. Many people grow up, their minds develop, and they rethink the choices they’ve made.
“Those people deserve a second chance. Prisons should be a place of redemption, not destruction.”