Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Moratorium Movement: Next Steps

Yesterday, A.G. Eric Holder called for a moratorium on the death penalty. He expressed concern over both the integrity of a system in which innocent people are sentenced to death and the process used by states and medical professionals to carry out death sentences. Unlike Antonin Scalia, Holder believes that innocent people have been and can be executed under our justice system. In an earlier interview with The Marshall Project, Holder highlighted some of the bigger issues related to our culture of incarceration that trouble him. He said: We have 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the people in incarceration. That’s not something that we can sustain. One third of the budget at the Justice Department now goes to the Bureau of Prisons, and if you look out to 2020, it goes up to 40, 45 percent or so. Which squeezes out the other things we want to do with regard to other areas of crime that we want to focus on, other initiatives that we want to support.And then if you look at the impact that mass incarceration has on communities from which these people are extracted, it leads to broken families, it leads to social dysfunction, it tends to breed more crime. 

In my home state of Oregon, outgoing Governor John Kitzhaber failed to follow through with a commutation of death sentences following his moratorium on executions while in office. With the swearing in today of his successor, Kate Brown, Oregonians -- including the 34 men and one woman on death row -- will have to wait to find out if the moratorium will be re-instituted or if their cases will proceed. If the latter, then Gary Haugen, who abandoned his appeals in part to press the Governor and state to address the issue, may find his execution re-scheduled.

So we're sitting here in limbo. In the meantime, though, if states like Oregon follow Holder's call (or if a federal moratorium gains momentum), then we're going to have to find ways to shift the attention and energy of death penalty abolitionists and abolition groups to these larger questions of mass incarceration and to the realities of what it means to spend "life in prison without the possibility of parole." 


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