Tennessee lawmakers began a new session of the General Assembly yesterday facing the challenge of balancing a state budget with what may be a nearly billion dollar shortfall.
The current year’s budget includes a 10 percent reduction in the state budget, though many of those cuts were softened by the $2.2 billion in stimulus money that Tennessee received. And though the State Funding Board has projected that state revenues will modestly increase during the upcoming budget year, this growth will not be nearly enough to make up for the loss of the stimulus funds.
The Governor is asking state agencies for proposals cutting between 6 percent and 9 percent from their spending plans for this budget year. Of particular concern are cuts to vital mental health care programs that are already underfunded.
Given that Tennessee is not alone in its current financial straits, the Death Penalty Information Center recently released a report called Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis. This report not only reiterates the fact that the death penalty system is enormously expensive and wasteful for state budgets with no clear benefits but also includes a newly released poll of 500 randomly selected police chiefs nationwide. In this poll, police chiefs were asked to name one area most important for reducing violent crime. The greater use of the death penalty ranked last among their priorities. Instead, increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and neighborhood watch programs, all ranked much higher than the death penalty.
Regardless of one’s position on the death penalty, it is time for us to work together and get smart about preventing violence in our communities by investing our limited resources in those initiatives that law enforcement have already told us reduce violent crime.
It is time to repeal the death penalty and use the savings to invest in law enforcement, create more treatment programs, more access to mental health care, and to give murder victims’ families the resources that they need in the aftermath of a violent crime.
Read the full report here.
On Monday, TADP supporters in Nashville gathered with thousands of others on Jefferson Street for the annual MLK Day March and rally at Tennessee State University. The day was warm and spirits were high as we made our way down Jefferson Street together. TADP supporters carried banners that included a quote from Dr. King stating, “I do not think God approves the death penalty.”
MLK Day is not only a day to remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but also to heed his prophetic call to nonviolence and justice for each member of our society, including those often forgotten or ignored. Too often we celebrate Dr. King without reaffirming our commitment to living out the vision he shared with us–a vision that includes this powerful excerpt from a sermon he gave at the Eutaw Alabama Church during the 1966 Alabama tour and Get-Out-the-Vote campaign:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Dr. King realized, as others before him, that the only way to end the cycle of violence is to break that cycle, responding in a different way. Too often those of us who work to end the death penalty are depicted as naive about the realities of violence in our world. But, I would argue that many of us are all too familiar with the destructive effects of violence as among our numbers are murder victims’ families, the wrongfully convicted, members of law enforcement, and family members of those on death row or those who have been executed.
All of us, no matter where we are on the issue of the death penalty, want accountability for those who commit violent crime. All of us want to feel safe. All of us want to support murder victims’ families and to ensure that their needs are met. All of us who are committed to fairness, justice, equality, and accountability want these things…we are on the same team. And I don’t believe any of us want a failed policy that perpetuates violence, may convict the innocent, costs millions more than the alternatives, and makes false promises to victims’ families. But I would argue that with the death penalty system, that is just what we’ve got.
Dr. King knew very well he might not live a long life, and he paid the ultimate price for standing up for what he believed. He was not naive about violence. But, he also knew that there was another way to live together, a way that allows us to respond to killing without becoming killers ourselves.
It is not us against them. It is only us, and working together, we can create a better society and system of justice for everyone. So, no matter how we feel about the death penalty, each one of us has the opportunity to listen to those with whom we disagree, find common ground where we can, and work as a team on those things we all care about. This is a lesson we all can keep learning.
Thank you Dr. King for your courage and your calling.
Fifteen TADP supporters, including staff, board members, and other activists returned on Sunday from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Conference in Louisville, KY. As usual, the conference was packed with workshops and lectures from experts all over the country as well as from exonerees and murder victims family members, all who are working to abolish the death penalty in our country.
This year’s conference also included other presenters who, at first, might not seem likely candidates to speak at such a gathering: members of law enforcement as well as conservative ministers and politicians. However, the truth is that this issue of abolition is not a liberal issue, and conservatives and other unusual allies across the country are speaking out and saying so.
Members of law enforcement who presented at the conference confirmed again and again that the death penalty does nothing to deter crime, and in fact, drains resources away from effective crime fighting measures. A detective from New York City said that he became more aware of the ineffectiveness of the death penalty in fighting crime when New York judicially abolished it a few years ago. He said that though most New York law enforcement members were initially concerned about the decision, the death penalty’s abolition had absolutely no impact on crime. Furthermore, we were also reminded that New Jersey’s murder rate has decreased each year since the abolition of its death penalty in 2007.
Perhaps most striking was the presentation of Senator Roy Brown of Montana, a very conservative politician from that state. He led the fight against the death penalty in Montana in its last legislative session and successfully moved a repeal bill through a Republican-controlled Senate. His opposition to the death penalty comes from his strong, conservative beliefs in a pro-life orientation from conception to natural death, less government involvement in the lives of citizens, fiscal responsibility, and dismantling those government programs that have proven to be inefficient. All of these very conservative ideals apply to the issue of the death penalty.
I came away from the conference encouraged that we can reach across party lines and political ideologies to find common ground on this issue. Regardless of whether a person is opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds, the reality is that when you examine the system beyond the emotion and outrage surrounding a murder, you discover a system that is completely and irrevocably broken. It is unfairly applied, more costly than alternatives, extremely arbitrary, not a deterrent, puts victims’ families through years of unnecessary suffering, and risks executing innocent people.
I was so excited to see that the AP did a story on Senator Brown at the conference that was picked up nationwide, including in Nashville. There is still a great deal of work to do, but as Dr. King reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
Read the article here.
In Sunday’s Tennessean, John Seigenthaler–chairman emeritus of the Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center in Nashville–had another opinion piece, following up on his piece of a few weeks ago, concerning the case of Gaile Owens, an inmate on Tennessee’s death row. In Sunday’s article, he had more details about nine similar cases in Tennessee, only one of which resulted in a death sentence: the case of Gaile Owens.
The article not only demonstrates the unfairness of Gaile’s sentence (particularly given that she was willing to plead guilty from the beginning) but of the continued arbitrariness of the death penalty in general.
Read more here.
An article just posted on the USA Today website discusses the court hearing tomorrow that will determine whether or not the state of Tennessee can conduct an autopsy on the body of Cecil Johnson, who was executed in Tennessee on December 2, despite his religious objections to an autopsy. Though many states do not perform autopsies on inmates who are executed, Tennessee routinely does.
Read the article here.
As we reported in an earlier blog post, in October 2009, the American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the modern capital punishment system, abandoned the effort “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” In other words, the death penalty system in this country is irrevocably broken, and the Institute knows it.
Read more here.