Op-Ed

Death penalty, symbol of Florida’s racial bias

TNS

The NAACP and its membership have been at the forefront of efforts across the country to end the death penalty. We recognize the disturbing role that racial bias has played in the death penalty’s history, and continues to play to this day.

Alarmed by the death penalty’s racial bias, as well as its errors and high cost, much of the country is turning away from it. Seven states in the last decade have ended the death penalty, four have placed a moratorium on executions, and death sentences and executions are at record lows.

Unfortunately, a new report from Harvard Law School shows that a handful of counties in Florida are resisting this trend, holding onto an institution plagued by racial bias that has no place in society today. Between 2010 and 2015, only 16 counties — out of 3,143 nationwide — sentenced five or more people to death. A quarter of these 16 outlier counties are in Florida.

From the days of lynchings through the years of Jim Crow laws, and even today capital punishment has always been deeply affected by race. Although African Americans make up just under 13 percent of the overall population, 42 percent of the people currently on death row are black, and almost 35 percent of those who have been executed in the U.S. are African American.

The death penalty undermines trust and integrity in the criminal justice system because it is racially biased and inhumane.

Currently, 30 states and the federal government have the death penalty, though many states rarely use it.

There can be no doubt that race plays a role in the use of the death penalty: a 2014 study found that jurors in Washington state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for an African American defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case.

Furthermore, the race of the victim in a death penalty case appears to have an impact: A 2011 study in Louisiana showed that the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for those whose victim was white than those whose victim was African American.

The problematic role of race sends the troubling message that in our criminal justice system African American lives are less valuable than those of white Americans.

As the recent Harvard Law School report explains, the justice systems in these counties suffer from prosecutorial misconduct, bad defense, racial bias, and harsh sentencing practices against youth and those with intellectual impairments. In short, too many Florida counties are making a list that no one wants to be on.

Miami-Dade County, as well as Duval, Hillsborough, and Pinellas, make the list of counties that most frequently use the death penalty. Of these four, Duval by far produces the most death sentences — a quarter of the state’s death sentences between 2010 and 2015 — despite accounting for only 5 percent of Florida’s population. With 87 percent of the defendants sentenced to death between 2010 and 2015 being people of color, the racial disparities in Duval are especially stark. The fact that such racial disparities persist in the old confederacy should trouble us all.

As America moves away from the death penalty, the majority of the counties stubbornly hanging onto it are in former slave states — Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and of course Florida. The death penalty remains a symbol of racial bias, which lives on in locales with some of the most disturbing histories of violence and discrimination against African Americans. Part of coming to terms with this past requires ending institutions intricately tied to it, such as the death penalty.

For this reason and others, the NAACP is committed to ending the death penalty. The recent report from Harvard Law School reminds us of the urgency of achieving this goal in Florida. The death penalty causes too much harm to allow it to continue. There are more effective ways to respond to violence and keep society safe.

Adora Obi Nweze is the president of the Florida State Conference NAACP and a Board Member of the National NAACP. She lives in Weston.

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