The death penalty has long stood on its own among social issues. For instance, I often hear people refer to my organisation, EJUSA as both reforming the criminal justice system and ending the death penalty – as if the death penalty is somehow separate from the rest of the criminal justice system.
This week, despite incredible, longstanding momentum away from the death penalty in the US, voters in three states chose to keep it. They did this even in the face of progress on other criminal justice reform initiatives.
The reality is that the death penalty is a microcosm of a much larger system of injustice. Everything that’s wrong with the justice system is present in the death penalty, times ten After all, only with a system that executes people, can living in a tiny, bleak cage until you die, be defined as “getting off easy”.
My work to end the death penalty has put me in contact with families of murder victims, families of those on death row, and system actors like corrections officers who have carried out executions. They have all taught me that trauma is everywhere in the justice system, and that society’s response to violence often makes it much worse.
Trauma is the unimaginable horror of losing a loved one to homicide. It’s being thrust into an alienating legal process while being denied any meaningful care and resources that would provide actual healing. (More than 90 per cent of crime survivors go without any kind of victim services in the aftermath of their harm.)
Trauma also comes from being ignored by a justice system that devalues the murder of your loved one. This is an experience I’ve heard about especially from women of colour mourning the death of their black sons. The death penalty exemplifies the charge that black lives often don’t matter: the vast majority of executions are for cases with white victims, even though African Americans are victims in half of all homicides. Study after study has found that a black defendant/white victim combination is most likely to trigger a death sentence, even factoring in the severity of the crime.
Trauma is a mountain of unaddressed pain in the life histories of those on death row. People who commit these murders are often victims of the most shocking crimes you can imagine – gross physical and sexual abuse, assault, trafficking, and neglect across a lifetime. Those experiences, especially at a young age, can actually rewire the brain if there isn’t support for people to cope and make meaning out of what happened to them. This understanding isn’t about making excuses for the crimes they went on to commit, but it does offer a road map for how we can catch and care for victims before they fall through the cracks, and hopefully prevent future violence.
Trauma is the daily life of law enforcement and corrections officers who run towards the violence instead of away from it. EJUSA has talked with corrections officers who are haunted by the men they’ve executed. Many executioners have turned to alcohol or had nervous breakdowns because they can’t face what our system has asked them to do. Meanwhile police officers witness the worst acts of humanity day after day, while suppressing the normal human reactions that come with such exposure to violence. But that trauma resurfaces, sometimes in acts of police violence or aggression, other times turned inward. Corrections officers have higher suicide rates than any other occupation.
If the system is traumatising everyone, for whom is it working?
EJUSA’s campaign to end the death penalty has given us a unique experience changing the narrative around how we respond to the most extreme acts of violence. We’ve learned that the justice system will fail everyone unless it serves everyone. That means:
- Reducing violence before it occurs, using public health techniques that have been proven to heal communities instead of devastate them.
- Ensuring that all survivors of violence have can receive high quality, culturally competent, trauma informed care and resources – and ending the racial disparities that make services less accessible to survivors of colour.
- Making restorative justice widely available. When separation is needed, environments should not further harm those who have harmed others, but should help and nurture them to do the hard work of taking responsibility, transforming, and committing to a different path forward.
- Bringing trauma-responsiveness to every part of the system, including police, corrections, and courts. This will promote compassionate responses to those harmed and to those who harm. It will also give system actors mechanisms to address their own trauma before it comes out in harmful ways.
- Naming and accounting for the role the justice system has played in advancing racism and inequity and working to reverse that harm by focusing investments in healing those communities most devastated by both violence and mass incarceration.
Ending the death penalty won’t accomplish all of these things. That’s why EJUSA believes that we must do more than take down those policies that aren’t working. We must do the work of ending the death penalty with a broader vision towards something brighter, better, and more beautiful for humanity – building the trauma-responsive justice system of our future.
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