Thursday, February 26, 2009

Abolish the death penalty

One of the cornerstones of restorative justice theory is that every person is endowed with dignity as a birthright. Human dignity remains with the person from conception to natural death. Thus, there is no place for capital punishment or the death penalty in restorative justice theory and practice.

Currently the Colorado Legislature is considering a bill to abolish the death penalty - House Bill 1274. Although the motive underlying this bill is economic (freeing up money to devote to cold cases) rather than moral (upholding the idea of human dignity), I support passage of the bill because the outcome is consistent with restorative justice principles.

As I wrote several years ago emphasis on law and punishment may result on a safe community for the dominant society but does not create a peaceful community for all. In order to create peace in our communities we need to turn from retribution to healing the harm of crime and restoring relationships among persons causing harm to others, persons harmed, their families and friends, and all people in our communities.

The death penalty is contrary to restoration of the common good. Fundamental to the philosophy of the common good is respect for the human dignity of each person. Such respect is fundamental to restorative justice. Execution of offenders who murder is utter disrespect for human life. Thus, opposition to the death penalty is a core value of justice based on restoration of peace among individuals living together in community.

So often we read of brutal murders in the headlines. We fail to realize murders more often happen between people who know each other and may even be related. I am reminded of a case I listened to as a court reporter involving a father letting his daughter sit on his lap and drive their pickup. How often did we let out children do the same thing? The father in this case was drunk. He and his daughter were driving on a graveled, country road. The pickup went off the road and crashed. The daughter died as a result of the crash.

I first saw the father several days later in court. He stood before me crying uncontrollably, so much so we could not proceed. Did he deserve to be punished? Yes, I think so, but all our punitive sanctions could not increase the guilt and remorse the father felt. Yet, our judicial system, rather than healing the harm of this crime, followed mandatory sentencing guidelines and separated this poor, ethnic minority family by placing this father in prison for a lengthy time and leaving the mother and other children without the father and provider for their family.

Such action does not deter crime nor rehabilitate the offender. Rather, we are destroying families, ethnic cultures, and communities of people.

Just as in this case, the death penalty does not result in the execution of people like me, white, affluent, and employed in meaningful work. The death penalty primarily affects the poor, mentally ill, dark skinned, addicted, and those vulnerable people living on the margins of our society.

We as believers in restorative justice are called upon to not only oppose the death penalty but to rebuff a justice system based on expediency and efficiency in favor of a justice system founded on the common good, focused on the healing of persons harmed, persons causing harm, their families and supporters, and all members of our communities. To do this will take great courage. Let us pray together for courage to create peace in our communities through restorative justice.

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