By Jeremy Schroeder, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
February 16, 2012
If you are reading this article, you are probably against the death penalty, and you probably know that the climate for abolishing the death penalty has drastically changed. Death sentences and executions are down, bills to repeal the death penalty have been introduced in most states with death penalty statutes and a growing number of states have actually ended the use of capital punishment – my former state of Illinois most recently.
We can take great pride in knowing that in every state in which the death penalty has ended, lives that would otherwise be in jeopardy have been saved and resources that would have been used to kill might now be used to heal and make our communities safer.
What you may not know is how working against the death penalty in your state can help save lives even if you don’t have the death penalty or repeal legislation is not pending in your legislature immediately. After running the campaign in Illinois, I can’t stress enough how important those early voices for abolition were. A lot of the attention goes to the states that are close to abolishing the death penalty and rightly so. But you can make just as big a difference saving lives in states that are further away from repealing the death penalty. Here, the work is setting the tone and the stage for repeal by building an ever-broadening base of support for our vision of a just society that values life and holds offenders accountable while enhancing support for victims of homicide.
Although I am a lawyer by training, I am an organizer at heart, so I will make the ask here in bold letters: CALL YOUR STATE COALITION AND VOLUNTEER (and support their work financially)! I’ll make it easy: go to www.ncadp.org and click on the link for “State Affiliates” and click on your state.
In the end, this is a local grassroots community struggle. It is vitally important that you connect with the good work being done locally. If need be, you can contact me directly, and I’ll put you in touch with the people in your state who are working to repeal, stop and end the death penalty every day. I’m serious. If you need to stop reading this article and e-mail/phone, I will not be offended.
If you still need convincing, I want to share something I learned from Bob Gilligan, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. Bob has a gift for cutting right to the heart of the issue. Bob’s message spoke to me. When he would speak, he would speak persuasively about the practical reasons for ending the death penalty and would move people to support our cause on that basis. But he would also remind everyone that the death penalty is morally wrong and that should be enough of a reason to abolish it.
I don’t fight to abolish the death penalty because it will save money (it will) or because of problems with the broken system (there are many). I fight the death penalty because the death penalty is morally wrong. Because of this simple truth, I believe that it is important that we work in our own communities to create a society that addresses violence through a system that is as morally just as possible, takes care of victims and makes us all safer. There is a lot of work to do on that front, but I am starting by fighting to abolish the death penalty.
Back to my reasons I feel it is better to get involved with your state campaigns and not just focus on the states that are close to abolition.
First, the recent high-profile cases like Troy Davis and movement on numerous bills to abolish the death penalty have created a national climate where the death penalty is being questioned. The states near abolition, as well as states in the pipeline to enter abolition campaigns, are all helped tremendously by this climate change. The media in these states used to ask if abolition was a good idea, but now the climate has changed where the media knows many of the problems of the death penalty. However, in order to continue this change, people need to see movement everywhere and relatively small victories in states that are not close to abolition make a huge difference.
Folks always tell me that “my state is different and we are not close to abolishing the death penalty.” This sentiment is exactly why having unexpected “smaller” victories is so effective; the victories show that, even in states where people do not expect opposition to the death penalty, people are standing up against it. Instead of waiting for the right time to repeal the death penalty, start organizing now so you have the broad coalition made up of faith and community groups, conservatives, murder victims’ family members, law enforcement, attorneys and others that are needed to ultimately win abolition.
Second, state campaigns take a lot longer than people realize. The culture change I talked about earlier is unfortunately the easier part. It still takes time to build the relationships and bonds strong enough to push the belief that abolition is possible. And sometimes, without realizing it, we have to convince ourselves as well.
I learned this the hard way. Illinois had almost a decade-long moratorium on executions, and we all truly hoped we could abolish the death penalty. But that is not the same thing as believing it is possible. I remember vividly standing in the Capitol after a string of smaller victories when I knew we would be successful in Illinois. I also remember the hard time I had after convincing our coalition it was possible. It took years of consistent, strategic work together for our coalition partners to see what we saw. Take my advice, get started early.
Finally, I started this article by mentioning your work can save lives. Obviously, if you help abolish the death penalty in a state, no one else will be executed. But what about those states that are further away from abolition? Your help is even more critical. In many of those states, executions are still happening. Your work can stop an execution. Simply being a voice against the death penalty in the community can change how the media in your area reports on the death penalty, how your district attorney decides to seek the death penalty and even how often your governor grants clemency.
Below is a rundown of what’s happening in your state. This list is not exhaustive or can’t cover all the major campaigns that are happening; some states are working on a behind-the-scenes strategy that shouldn’t be talked about in a public newsletter. So please, as a first step to getting involved, I’ll say again: contact your state organization and volunteer!
Repeal legislation being considered in 2012-2013:
Connecticut and Maryland have bills pending. California will have a ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty in the 2012 election. Colorado, Kansas and Montana will hopefully have legislation in next session.
Steam may be building to repeal the death penalty in these states in the near term:
Delaware, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Washington
States to watch (and why to watch them):
Missouri: Opposition is mounting to the death sentence of Reggie Clemmons.
North Carolina: A bill that would have repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act was recently defeated.
Ohio: There are bills to abolish the death penalty in both chambers, and a study commission is looking at the death penalty.
Oregon: Governor John Kitzhaber (pictured) declared a moratorium on all executions for remainder of his term.
Pennsylvania: A study commission on the death penalty passed in the Senate and the study will be done in 2012.
Opposition to the death penalty in states that use the death penalty aggressively is mounting:
Florida: There are currently bills to require unanimous juries in sentencing as well as bills to abolish the death penalty. Litigators and communities of color are particularly active in county organizing at the moment.
Georgia: Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have been actively engaging supporters across the state to keep the momentum going since the massive, global outcry over the execution of Troy Davis last September.
Texas: Assist the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in collecting clergy signatures on an interfaith statement of opposition to the death penalty. Click here for details.
If you take away nothing else from this article, know that you are not alone in your desire to get rid of this broken, morally wrong system we call the death penalty. You only need to look around to see that our numbers are increasing every day. Stand up and change the way people talk about the death penalty in your community. Seize this moment right now to make a difference in people’s lives.
Jeremy Schroeder is the National Strategy Council for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is the oldest and largest organization dedicated exclusively to ending capital punishment in the United States and supporting efforts worldwide. Previously, Jeremy was the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and led their successful campaign last year. The bill abolishing the death penalty was signed into law in March 2011.
This article first appeared in CMN’s February 2012 newsletter.