Progress Without Profit: Nonprofits can uncover racism in death penalty sentencing

After nearly two decades without a single federal execution, former President Donald Trump oversaw the killing of 13 people on death row in the last six months of his presidency. At the cost of human life, these executions were largely a political move before the election, meant to contrast President Joe Biden’s stance on abolishing the death penalty with Trump’s label as a “law and order” president.

This spree of state-sanctioned killings and consequent media attention brings the issue of the death penalty to the forefront, providing us an opportunity to understand why it’s irredeemable. 

While I cannot dive deeply into or have as much expertise as I’d like about something as important as the death penalty, I hope scratching the surface of the inequalities of the criminal justice system and the work of nonprofits furthers the conversation, inspires more action and holds elected leaders accountable. 

Since the mid-1990s, support for the death penalty has steadily declined. A majority of Americans now feel that alternatives to the death penalty constitute a better punishment for murder. As public sentiment changes, we have to pressure representatives to take stances that better represent their constituents. 

The argument for abolishing the death penalty is often a moral one, which I believe to be valid. I want to expand, however, on the way capital punishment represents a legal form of racism. Note: The death penalty is also abelist and classist, but it’s impossible to thoroughly investigate all these issues within this limited word count. 

The hard facts don’t lie: The criminal justice system unleashes the power of the death penalty disproportionately on Black people. The racism that leads to this targeted use of the death penalty pervades each step of the judicial process. 

Before a conviction, Black defendants face a trial stacked against them. According to The Death Penalty Information Center, 87% of Black exonerees who’d been sentenced to death faced official misconduct, perjury, or false accusation. In other words, Black defendants are forced to follow the rules of a game, while other players cheat. In this hypothetical board game, other players start 10 spaces ahead while actively rooting for and collaborating to make sure the Black player loses. 

The Sentencing Project reports that white people who strongly associate crimes with people of color are more likely to support capital punishment. Similarly, research by the University of Chicago demonstrates that white people with stronger anti-Black sentiment are more likely to support the death penalty. These assumptions are not a matter of just internal prejudice, but translate into racist action. Duke University found that all-white juries convict Black defendants more than white ones. 

This assumption that Black bodies will be the ones to bear the brunt of capital punishment may explain white people’s strong support for a retributive system of punishment versus a rehabilitative one. More than half of white people support the death penalty compared to 36% of Black people.  

The combined effects of racial prejudice in our justice system lead to the astonishing statistic that Black people make up 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, despite representing only 13% of the population.

The racism inherent in the death penalty has irreversible consequences, often leading to the execution of innocent people. For every 10 people executed, one person is exonerated. Even those exonerated before their execution lose years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. However, let’s be clear: Even those guilty of a crime shouldn’t be put to death. 

Now, I want to profile a nonprofit and highlight its efforts to abolish the death penalty. You may be familiar with the Equal Justice Initiative already; perhaps you’ve read founder Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir “Just Mercy,” or watched the movie by the same name. Among other initiatives for criminal justice reform, EJI represents defendants on death row, many of whom are innocent or wrongly convicted. They bring to light the issues surrounding the death penalty in its mission to expose the racism, classism and abelism of the institution. 

In 2010, EJI produced a comprehensive report that documented racial discrimination in jury selection, especially when it came to death penalty cases. EJI not only produces groundbreaking research reports, educational materials and films about criminal justice reform, but also takes profound legal action. In 1993, Bryan Stevenson won the freedom of Walter McMillan, a Black man who spent six years on death row after falsely being convicted of killing a white woman. EJI, led by Bryan Stevenson, has since won relief for 130 people on death row.  

EJI, along with other social justice nonprofits like the ACL, perform the invaluable work of uncovering the racism that cloaks the death penalty. The death penalty legally protects racialized killing and must be abolished. For that reason, Biden — the first U.S. president to openly campaign and win on abolishing the federal death penalty — must be held accountable to keep his promises.

Sophie Roppe is a junior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.