My intense passion for righting wrongs came before any desire to work within legislation or politics. I became involved with social justice issues during my days as a Catholic schoolgirl, and although the dogma eventually disappeared, the need to help others remained. In choosing an externship, the ACLU was my first choice, and a natural fit. As I’ve learned more about its work, I’ve found that my gut reaction to the issues has been spot on.
I formed my beliefs about the death penalty long before I was asked to provide some research for the ACLU. But the facts I’ve now seen are astonishing, and all point to what I already felt – the death penalty is a failed system that needed to be repealed. The statistics clearly show that the death penalty does not work. It costs an exorbitant amount of money. It does not deter crime. It is applied arbitrarily. Innocent people are executed. Somehow though, Washington state still has the death penalty. What was I missing? I decided to travel to Olympia for the Senate hearing on the bill to repeal the death penalty.
A public hearing on a legislative bill is a way for citizens to voice their opinions and take an active role in democracy. It gives the public the opportunity to be heard and hear the questions and concerns of the senators. It can be frustrating though, especially for a budding young activist like myself. My co-workers and ACLU allies were giving the senators great reasons to repeal the death penalty, but I could see not all of them were convinced.
The senators who were unsure about repealing the death penalty were not asking about the statistics, cost, or deterrence. Instead the focus was on morality and justice. Some valid questions were raised: What is the ultimate justice for the victims? If there was no death penalty what leverage would prosecutors have to plea bargain? How would convicts be punished for crimes they commit in jail – after they have received sentences of life in prison?
Some of these questions are easy to answer in support of repealing the death penalty. Justice can still be served without the death penalty. Life in prison means that the offender will never be released to live freely and that the process is over so that the families can move toward healing. The family members that testified at the hearing still had pain in their voice, but also clear conviction that the death penalty was not the answer. As one of them said:
There's been enough killing. I don't want any more of it. As a family member of a murder victim, I know how it feels to know that my loved one died at the hands of another person. It is not something I want anyone else to experience, whether that person is the sister, the brother, or parent or child of a murder victim, or the sister, or brother, or parent or child of a murderer.
Sometimes the answer isn't just in statistics and facts, but in the personal experiences of those around us.