New Jersey moves to abolish the death penalty

News Analysis

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, after nearly a year of deliberations, released its report and recommendations on Jan. 2.

Its key findings can be summarized as follows: (1) the death penalty is by no means a deterrent to crime, (2) life without parole is a viable alternative to death row, since it deprives individuals of their capacity to harm the public, (3) keeping an inmate on death row costs more than maintaining a typical inmate and (4) the death penalty is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”

In wrapping up its report, the commission urged the Legislature to adopt a draft law that reads in part, “This bill eliminates the death penalty in New Jersey and replaces it with life imprisonment without eligibility for parole, which sentence shall be served in a maximum security prison.”

If adopted, such a law would make New Jersey the 13th state to reject capital punishment.

The report was hailed as a victory by death penalty abolitionists. It was also greeted by anti-racists, who correctly point out that capital punishment is disproportionately imposed on African Americans and Latinos, who, like poor people generally, typically lack the means for hiring defense lawyers.

Lee Hall, a member of the faculty at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., and an activist who has written about the privatization of prisons, observed: “Enlightened people will welcome the New Jersey Commission’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty, a punishment which has long kept the United States out of step with international norms.

“Execution is a simplistic response to complex problems,” he said. “It has only perpetuated violence, and it reflects the culture of domination and control that we’d do well to transcend.”

Despite this important victory, however, parts of the report are troubling, particularly to the extent that they echo many of the myths surrounding the U.S. criminal justice system today:

The report suggests the system simply needs a little bit of tinkering to get things back on track. The U.S. criminal justice system, which puts more people behind bars each year than any other industrialized nation, is fundamentally unjust by design. It is inherently biased against working-class people and racial minorities. The report leaves the problems of systemic class and racial bias unaddressed. And if a judge’s sentence of “life in prison without eligibility of parole” still claims the same group of people with the same frequency, then the severity of injustice will be tempered, but injustice itself will continue.

The commission’s almost exclusive focus on two poles — the death penalty versus a lifetime in jail — has the effect of reinforcing the status quo. It suggests these two are the only possible options, largely ignoring, for example, any prospects for an inmate’s rehabilitation. “Life without eligibility of parole” is an unacceptably rigid formulation.

The report dehumanizes those who are incarcerated. According to the report, one reason why the death penalty should be abolished is that it is a greater drain on the state’s coffers. It cites an annual savings of between $900,000 and $1.2 million if the state were to abolish it. However, one has to wonder about the logic of a system that allows the life or death of a human being to hinge on the cold calculus of cost-benefit analysis.

Under U.S. capitalism today, inmates are routinely exploited as a source of sub-minimum-wage labor. One has to wonder if a vision of extra profits from a “lifetime” of exploitation figures into the commission’s calculations.

The report does offer one ray of hope, namely, the commission’s conclusion that the death penalty is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.” It recognizes that the number of people who oppose capital punishment seems to be increasing.

Some of this shift can be attributed to the many cases where death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Last year’s execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a rehabilitated inmate in San Quentin Prison in California, also touched a raw nerve, sparking an increase in anti-death penalty activism.

Other factors in this process include the public’s growing revulsion at U.S. atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere, the accounts of torture at Guantanamo, the secret “rendition” flights for torture overseas — all of which lead people to question the government’s use of lethal force.

The New Jersey Commission’s actions are a beginning. But the fight is not over.

Zoé Galletta writes from New Brunswick, N.J.