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DOES SYSTEMIC RACISM EXIST?

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Systemic Racism in the Death Penalty

The death penalty is one such area where systemic racism has been observed. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “racial bias persists today, as evidenced by cases with white victims being more likely to be investigated and capitally charged; systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death-penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color”. Source


The report also notes that “the greatest racial disparity of the death penalty is the way in which the death penalty is largely reserved for cases where the victims are white”. Source


Amnesty International’s 2021 Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions also charged that “many cases of those who faced the death penalty [in the United States] in 2021 were also affected by concerns of racial discrimination and bias”. Source


The scale of the federal death penalty expanded with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the crime bill, which added 60 new offenses to the list of those eligible for the death penalty.


The death penalty has always been, and continues to be, disproportionately wielded against Black people and other people of color. Disparities in the makeup of the death row population are clear: Source

  • Black and Hispanic people represent 31% of the U.S. population, but 53% of death row inmates—41.9% and 11.3% respectively (American Progress, 2019).

  • The death row population is over 41% Black, even though Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population (Prison Policy Initiative, 2016).

The death penalty has long come under scrutiny for being racially biased. Earlier in the twentieth century when it was applied for the crime of rape, 89 percent of the executions involved black defendants, most for the rape of a white woman. In the modern era, when executions have been carried out exclusively for murder, 75 percent of the cases involve the murder of white victims, even though about half of all homicide victims in America are black. Source


Racial bias persists today, as evidenced by cases with white victims being more likely to be investigated and capitally charged; systemic exclusion of jurors of color from service in death-penalty trials; and disproportionate imposition of death sentences against defendants of color. The report provides compelling evidence of racial bias in the modern death penalty. Source


People convicted of killing white people are 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if those killed were Black—a clear indicator of a system set up to protect and serve white interests. Only 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, but Black people make up 42 percent of people on death row at the state level and 41 percent of those on federal death row. Source


According to DPIC, 185 death row defendants have been exonerated since 1972—because of police or prosecutorial misconduct, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, inadequate defense, and/or DNA evidence. Of those, 115 have been Black or Latinx. Source


The existence of implicit racial bias among some law enforcement officers, witnesses, jurors, and others allows harsher punishment of minorities, even without legal sanction or intention. Source


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