As voters in California and Nebraska get ready to determine the fate of the death penalty in their states next week, Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Karen Clifton, the Executive Director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which “proclaims the Church’s pro-life teaching and prepares Catholics for informed involvement in the public debate to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice”:
Proposition 62 in California, which would repeal the death penalty, looks to be a closely contested race. What would a victory in this race mean for the anti-death penalty cause?
The repeal in California would be big news for the repeal movement in the United States . Repeal in California would immediately remove a third of the death row population in this country. It would also send a strong message— due to the size of California and the diversity of its population—that the nation does not want or need the death penalty anymore. Many people say, so goes California, so goes the rest of the country.
Support for the death penalty has reached a 45-year low. What do you think accounts for this decline? Do you think this trend will be durable and that support will continue to decline?
We have the means to defend people from people who kill within our prison system. A strong reason for the decline is the 156 exonerees. One in nine of those executed have been proven to be innocent on death row. The system is beyond broken. The death penalty has a wide rippling effect. The stories of friends and family members of the perpetrators and the victims, the prison personnel and attorneys have changed hearts and minds. Victim’s family members are promised closure and peace with the death penalty and find the results only bring about another grieving family. Victim’s families have made strong statements about how killing another person does not honor their loved one. Using violence to teach violence is wrong and has not worked in our society. People are tired of violence and are in need of healing and a justice that is restorative to those affected by crime.
Despite declining support, the US remains an outlier among stable democracies in terms of our use of the death penalty. Why do you think that’s the case?
Most countries do not have access to guns and do not have the murder rates we do. Americans have been slow to learn from other nations who have focused on restoring people and addressing the issues of why people commit crimes in the first place.
Supporters of the death penalty argue that abolishing it means being soft on crime and that vulnerable populations actually suffer most from increased violent crime. How would you respond to those critics?
States that do not have the death penalty have a lower crime rate than those that do. It has been proven that the crime rate goes up after an execution. Not having the death penalty is not soft on crime. Life without parole has been considered a much harsher punishment. 124 of those executed have elected to be killed rather than live on death row. Focusing on the rehabilitation of oneself is not an easy task.
If you were to meet with Hillary Clinton to discuss the death penalty, what would you say to her?
As a country, we need to strive to become better. We are the only western country with this practice. It is expensive and diverts money from programs that could be used to assist the victims and those affected by the crime. It fosters vengeance and does not promote healing, neither for the victim or their families nor the perpetrator or their families. We have a prison system that is able to protect society from those who kill. The death penalty is disproportionately used on people of color, intellectually and mentally disabled, and those living in poverty.