The death penalty: it's not about them, it's about us

By Ron Steiner of Portland, Oregon. Ron is the board chair of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

For more than a few years now I have had a discussion going on in my mind about the fabric we have woven in our culture today. It really started when I had the opportunity to talk to a Portland high school group about the Oregon death penalty. I was challenged as to why I was concerned about people on Oregon’s death row. My answer was, “yes it is about them... but it is more so about us.”

In that discussion I asked the 16, 17, 18 year olds in the school auditorium, with its high-banked seats, “what are the causes of crime... violent crime to be more to the point.” They knew all too well, some from first-hand experience, what many of the causes were. First on the black board was “poverty,” then “addictions, drugs, TV violence, lack of education, poor schools (not theirs), gangs, weakness, prejudice, hate, poor parenting, deprived neighborhoods, lack of love, mental illness”… these kids knew a lot about what caused crime.

We then moved to “what deters crime?” The cascade of answers coming down from the seats slowed, like a wistful conversation on a hot summer’s day. “Prison” was the first tentative offering. Oregon knows about prison and its more than 14,400 current inmates, projected to keep increasing and now being looked at by the legislature in regard to several mandatory sentencing provisions in our laws.

“Better programs for those with addictions,” came moments later. Then the pace picked up with “more police," “curtail gangs,” “more early childhood education,” “better programs for the mentally ill,” “intervention into abusive households,” “jobs”, “educational opportunities for single moms” followed. The young people started to realize the answers, and also the cost of providing such programs. Many newspaper articles placed an exclamation mark on cuts to the programs mentioned by the students.

Crime and prevention of crime are inexorably linked, as threads in a fabric, when it comes to money. Crime costs all of us. The victims of crime first, and then everyone else as we are buffeted by the ripples that crime creates in a community. I would venture that every citizen of Oregon wants to feel safe from crime. But, Oregon’s “tough on crime” initiatives have filled our jails and prison to a point that the costs of maintaining such a penal system, prevents the adequate funding of so many programs that actually do deter crime.

Using FBI figures and surveys of law enforcement officers, it is well established that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. Yet, it is estimated that the taxpayers of Oregon spend an annual figure well in excess of $28 million on a death penalty system... one that does not deter crime...one that rarely (twice in the past 52 years) executes a convicted murderer.

When we look at a fabric, we seldom look at the individual threads of that cloth. Our culture, our society, our crime and punishment laws in Oregon are but a fabric, the threads of which are discussed here, in the high school auditorium, in the chambers of our Legislature, and in a plethora of media accounts. When we eventually pull out the death penalty thread, the cloth will not be weakened, rather strengthened by allowing for more funds to go to social service programs that do in fact deter crime, lift people from poverty, provide job skills and opportunities, curb abuse, properly treat the mentally ill and move past the misconception that death penalty serves us in any way.

We are the weavers. Are we better off funding programs that do, in fact, deter violent crime or maintain a death penalty that costs tax-payers millions upon millions of dollars with absolutely not positive outcome for anyone?

For more information on the death penalty, go to DeathPenaltyOnfo.org. For more information or to get involved in our movement, go to OADP.org