Rehabilitation over incarceration

a courtroom in a circle formation. pixabay

No more capital punishment

The death penalty is an appalling form of capital punishment, used to give the state power, create a diluted sense of justice, and take the lives of many.

I don’t particularly like the term “death penalty” itself. It implies that the person being put to death is guilty of a crime, and in many cases, innocent people are placed on death row. Why not call it murder by the state? Murder sounds much more fitting considering the outcome – in my opinion. 

The conversation surrounding the morality of the “death penalty” has surfaced recently when the state killed Dustin Higgs, a 48-year-old man, convicted of murdering 3 women in January of 1996: Tamika Black (19), Tanji Jackson (21), and Mishann Chinn (23).

I will not argue the facts of this case, as that is a whole other issue. However, the gunman who killed two of these women was given a life sentence, while Higgs was sentenced to death, and that does not sit right with me. I am certainly not saying that the gunman should have also been assigned this horrid punishment. I would argue that Higgs, and other people sentenced to death, are being wronged by the state and the people. Whether guilty of a crime themselves or not, I do not believe that anyone should be killed.

I recall a day when I was on the playground in grade school and another child hit me – it hurt. My reaction was to hit back. The teacher stopped the interaction and explained to me that I should “be the bigger person and just walk away,” that I should “find a teacher so that they can talk to the student about their actions.” The conclusion was that it is better for only one person to get hurt, and for the perpetrator to as a result be taught better actions and given the support that they need to be a “better” member of society. Now, that analogy may seem silly, as five-year-olds on a playground hitting each other cannot possibly be the same as taking one’s life – but I would argue that in terms of handling the situation, this is a principle that we should remember. If that day I had just responded by hitting the other child, what would either of us have learned about violence? Would we know that physical abuse is wrong, or would we have learned that it is okay as long as the amount of damage done is equal and “fair?”

I find that there is often a false conflation between the concepts of “fair” and ”equal.” In my understanding, fair is not always equal, and therefore justice is not always understood. If we continue to punish those who kill by killing with state power, who wins? Who feels a sense of justice? Who is happy? The families of those Higgs (allegedly) killed are still suffering the loss of their daughter, sister, partner, and friend. Now, in turn, Higgs’ family is suffering the loss of their own loved one.

If it was your sibling, child, partner, or friend who was convinced of such a heinous act, would you think it was fair for them to be killed in return, or would you want them to get the support that they need to re-enter their community and learn from their previous actions? This is not about an immediate “fix” – it is about looking past oneself and opening your heart to another human being and many generations to come.

The justice system we know today is not attempting to create a better, safer, happier society. Rather, it comes up with solutions to “get rid” of problems, to cost less money, and to make people afraid of the state. This only allows the state to hold more power over the people.

A state where justice system had the power to take your life, even if you are innocent, does not allow for individuals to have autonomy over their own person. Should the institutions and social structures have that kind of power over the people? This question is especially important when issues such as racism and sexism are built into these institutions – how can someone like Higgs, a Black man, truly receive a fair trial with his life on the line? There is no such thing as a blind trial when every single person has bias because of how society has raised us, whether it be conscious or not.

Black Americans like Higgs face poverty at a disproportionate rate, and far too often poverty is related to over-policing, which in turn is related to criminal convictions (whether accurate or not). Overall, this leads to more racialized people in the justice system, a bias on the inside, and a further cycle of poverty in the communities. There is no end in sight. Racialized people are overwhelmingly targeted by the justice system and far too often wrongfully convicted, just because of their appearance.

Higgs went to his grave swearing that he was innocent, and although there is no way to prove his innocence (or guilt), it is still important to acknowledge the failures within the justice system to be able to work towards positive systemic change for future generations.

Imagine living in a society where criminals were not looked down upon. Where people who were struggling were seen as human beings equally as valuable as those with high status. Imagine those who were caught up in a crowd they did not want to be a part of having the chance to a safe place, where they know that they would receive help rather than judgement, a prison sentence, or death.

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