Image of a green execution gurney against a filthy wall.

Death Penalty Support Reaches An All Time Low, and Here’s Why Feminists Should Care

According to a study published this week, the percentage of Americans who support public executions has now reached its lowest point in more than four decades, with less than half of the country offering support for the brutal, internationally disfavoured punishment.

The poll by the Pew Research Centre reflects a whopping seven percent decrease—from 56% to 49%—since just last March, reflecting a slow moving American nod to the global consensus that executions have no place in contemporary society.

The study also notes that support for the death penalty is not uniform amongst social groups. Pew reports that men favor the death penalty more than women do (55% as opposed to 43%); 57% of white people support the death penalty, as opposed to just 29% of the Black community and 36% of Hispanic Americans. Unsurprisingly, white Evangelical/Mainline Protestants continue to offer the highest support, ranging from 60-69%.

 

Graph showing the decline of support for the death penalty, which is now at its lowest point in four decades

 

So, why does this matter? Public support for the death penalty has long propped up the punishment as an expression of people’s democratic will—and has prohibited lawmakers from considering its repeal due to political repercussions. Judges, as a result, often hesitate to declare the death penalty as constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment. Declining support for the death penalty may finally push the public, judges, and lawmakers to reconsider the role this outmoded form of vengeance should have in the current criminal punishment system.

The last time support for the death penalty came close to being as low was in 1971. A year later, the Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia, a pivotal case that explored the many flaws of capital punishment, and introduced a four year moratorium on executions in the United States. This year, the Supreme Court is set to hear two pivotal cases on the death penalty, California will consider repealing its death penalty, and states everywhere face growing pressure to change or abandon their execution methods given the increasing challenges that face the procurement of lethal injection drugs. The political and judicial climate has never seen a better time for drastic change.

Why should feminists care about taking advantage of this swinging momentum? Well, firstly, the racial disparity in capital punishment sentencing is well documented—and we know intersectional feminism requires us to be concerned with racism. The ugly history of white feminism embracing the lynching of African Americans—the informal state sanctioned death penalty of its time— indeed further underscores a feminist imperative to stop the state sanctioned death penalty of today.

Further, academic literature suggests feminists “are in the best position to unmask the hypocrisy of the state in its role as executioner” and that a feminist critique of capital punishment can make the legal system more fair and holistic. As Silvia Federici poignantly notes,

As women, we know all too well, since we have always been the victims of it, the responsibility that the State bears in the propagation of male violence. We know that men are violent not because of any biological predisposition, but rather because violence is inculcated in them, and is honored and praised as a sign of genuine masculinity, in the case of war it is even rewarded with medals and exalted as the path to glory. In fact, the same state that kills those who commit murder, teaches and glorifies violence in his military academies, even though it is well-known that innocent civilians represent the bulk of the victims in modern wars [...] Thus, harsh penalties always betray a pernicious intent; they are a sign of a commitment to malgovernment, since by eliminating the criminal the state proclaims its supreme disinterest for any such measures that could effectively address the sources and the conditions of crime, notwithstanding its paternalistic pretense to be our protector.

Even when it comes to perpetrators of gender violencerape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and murder—state sponsored execution is not a punishment that feminists should embrace. Phyllis Crocker writes beautifully about what it means to be a feminist lawyer representing defendants on death row who have committed the very crimes crimes other feminists have rallied for the criminal system to take, and punish, more seriously. She argues that the feminist solution is in prevention of the forces that create such gender violence—not punishment that is disproportionately enforced, routinely involves gender violence against the defendant, and serves as an ineffective deterrent.

It is time feminists of all stripes consider taking this form of state violence on as a serious issue pertinent to their interests. There has never been a better time for the United States to finally heed its majority consensus to respect human rights and refrain from state brutality. All of those who care about feminism and violence should use this momentum—and demand abolition.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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