Capital punishment has been a longstanding controversy in the United States. Intended to deter criminal activity by invoking the ultimate sentence, it has come under scrutiny for its underlying discrimination against minorities. California maintains authorization for the death penalty. However, in recent briefings, Governor Gavin Newsome (D) declared that the influence of systemic racism is too closely linked to California’s justice system.
What Is Capital Punishment?
Most often referred to as the death penalty, capital punishment has been in existence since Eighteenth Century B.C. and has been historically implemented to punish individuals who carry out cruel and unusual crimes. Throughout history, the methods of death by sentencing have ranged from hanging, firing squad, electrocution, and even drowning. Today, lethal injection serves as the most common form of execution.
Criminals who face the death penalty in their state have committed a capital crime such as murder, mass murder, terrorism, espionage, child rape, and treason. The federal government has employed the death penalty for federal crimes, including the murder of a government official, treason, organizing a large-scale drug enterprise, or kidnapping resulting in death.
A Summarized History of Capital Punishment in California
The death penalty was first introduced to California law in 1872, requiring that individual counties or private facilities manage death row inmates and executions. In 1882, it became a state issue, and the responsibility fell on state prisons. During this time, hanging was the primary form of execution. In the 1900s, the death penalty was assigned to specific crimes, and the state of California did not permit death row inmates to present evidence to support their claim of innocence.
By the end of the 1900s, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was introduced in California as an alternative means of punishment for capital crimes. By the 2000s, there was growing concern about the sufficiency of procedural requirements and protections for death row inmates.
Voters began to voice their opinions about the legality of the sentencing. In addition to the high cost of execution, the increasing probability of sentencing an innocent person to death was much too high. During this decade, lethal injection was declared the primary form of execution.
Minorities In The Justice System
Throughout history, capital punishment has been used disproportionately against people of color. As seen in the exceptionally high numbers of incarcerated black men, minorities are more likely to be executed or sentenced to life in prison than those of Caucasian descent.
Racial disparities and unequal access to sufficient defense have left people of color with a lack of support and advocacy in the justice system. One out of every three Black men will be sentenced to prison, while one out of six Latino men and only one out of seventeen white males will be incarcerated.
According to the NAACP, African Americans represent 29% of arrests and 33% of incarcerations for illicit drugs, yet only 5% of illegal drug users are African American. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned due to drug use despite similar usage rates among both African Americans and Caucasians.
In addition to the disproportionate incarceration rate, the efforts to ensure a fair trial and provide sufficient legal representation for inmates of color are proven to be lacking in today’s modern justice system.
Newsom Seeks Additional Restrictions on Implementation
Governor Gavin Newsom filed a 175-page amicus brief, arguing for racially balanced juries and unanimity in sentencing verdicts for all capital cases. Without proof beyond reasonable doubt of disputed aggravating evidence, a jury may not be able to sentence a defendant to the death penalty.
To minimize racial disparity and provide equal opportunity for minority defendants to plead their case, Newsom has questioned the historical mechanisms by which the United States has functioned for so long. Newsom seeks to amplify the voices of minority jurors in the state of California. He poses the demand for equality so that all defendants may benefit from the fair and impartial trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.