Poverty and Capital Punishment

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SEATTLE, Washington — In cases involving capital punishment, the poor seldom find equal justice. From the U.S. to Iran, the single most common demographic amongst those on death row is poverty, suggesting a link between poverty and capital punishment.

As reported by the acting governments of 21 nations, some 682 people were executed 2012, according to Amnesty International. This number, however, excludes China, which is believed to have executed thousands more.

The vast majority of these executions were carried out on people who had previously been living near or under the poverty line. For many advocates against the death penalty, this correlation is further proof that capital punishment is not only unjust, but that it’s also prejudiced.

Connecting capital crimes and poverty

Capital offenses in nations both rich and poor are more frequently committed by those in poverty, and the poor are far more likely to receive the death sentence than are wealthy people accused of similar crimes. The problem, therefore, is dual-faceted in that poverty can lead to capital crime, and it makes capital punishment more likely.

For that reason some say the fundamental crisis for the death penalty is not the ethics of its existence but the ethics of its application. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Economic Issues, Jeffery and Colleen Johnson argue that, “this game [the death penalty]is played with clearly loaded dice. Our criminal justice system, like every other institution in American society, is infected by prejudice and discrimination.”

Likewise, it isn’t that international systems of law are necessarily prejudiced against the poor in a literal sense (though they often are), but that internal and systemic factors make the death penalty unfair. The cost of competent representation, for one, often prohibits the poor from mounting a sound defense.

And, that’s the big problem, critics say.

When the Johnsons refer to “loaded dice,” they refer to how current legal systems inherently favor those who can afford good lawyers, who are educated and who can post bail. Accordingly, the International Bar Association (IBA) reports that in nearly all of the 58 nations that still use capital punishment, wealthy defendants are at a distinct advantage to their poor counterparts.

This advantage contributes to a staggering imbalance. For example in Malaysia approximately 90 percent of the people on death row lived below the poverty line before being sentenced. Similar numbers can be found both at home and abroad.

Does privilege erode the pursuit of justice?

In many cases, not just those involving the potential for capital punishment, wealth or a lack thereof often plays a fundamental role in the sentence handed down by the court. We have all heard of domestic cases where famous athletes (many of them from poor backgrounds) have escaped unscathed or with mitigated charges from serious accusations including murder, rape and assault.

Many, less public, trials are held every day where the ability to afford representation is the difference between years of life spent in prison and years spent free. This is not to say that money has directly corrupted the system—because only in the rarest cases can money change the facts—but it is to say that wealth destabilizes the playing field.

For example, a public defender with a massive caseload is not likely to be able to do the same job and work as hard for his client as the best attorney money can buy.

It might not be realistic to expect complete equality in representation, but it does not seem unreasonable for one to expect a relative degree of evenness in competency. Ideally, advocates claim, that competency ought not be affected by forces outside of one’s control.

– Chase Colton

Sources: The Guardian, “Poverty and the Death Penalty”, IPS News, International Bar Association, Amnesty International
Photo: Death Penalty

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Jack Todd

Todd is a BORGEN Magazine writer.

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