By Maya Schenwar / Truthout
As right-wing legislators accelerate their push for violent measures like banning abortion, outlawing trans health care and shutting down racial justice curricula, they’re also advocating for another type of institutional violence: reinstating the death penalty, and making that penalty more likely to be carried out in states where it’s already legal.
The U.S. has long been trending toward fewer executions, more prohibitions against the death penalty and more high-profile people speaking out against the death penalty. Executions are banned in 23 states, and there’s a moratorium on federal executions. Yet many right-wingers are calling for a shift in the other direction. From Florida and Tennessee, to Iowa and Illinois, lawmakers have threatened to worsen death penalty laws, and to bring back the punishment in areas where it has been abolished.
The fact that right-wing lawmakers are now including the death penalty in their slate of racist, misogynist, anti-trans, anti-queer, ableist policies should not surprise us. The death penalty has always been used as a tool to maintain white supremacy, and has consistently targeted marginalized groups, particularly Black and disabled people. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has noted that “capital punishment is the stepchild of lynching.” Supporting the death penalty’s reinstatement further cements the right-wing policy agenda: It’s one of the most explicitly lethal manifestations of institutional racism and oppression.
A Flurry of Bills Pushes for Application of the Death Penalty
The current death penalty bills span a range of measures. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law allowing the death penalty to be imposed in cases of sexual battery against children, defying a Supreme Court ruling. The law was promoted by many of the same people pushing anti-LGBTQ and racist policies. Terrifyingly, its passage coincides with a new Florida law (now being challenged in court) that effectively bans youth attendance at drag events, attempting to portray drag as a sexual danger to children. (This is an intensely harmful misrepresentation, and stymies such important events as Drag Story Hour, in which storytellers using the art of drag read books at schools, libraries and bookstores, offering kids a chance to listen to a wide range of great literature, imagine gender more expansively, and engage with people who are challenging traditional gender norms.)
Another significant change in Florida came in April, when DeSantis signed a bill requiring only eight jury members — fewer than any other state — to recommend a death penalty sentence, rather than unanimous consent.
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Florida carried out its fourth execution of the year just last night.
In Tennessee last month, a bill passed that gives power over post-conviction proceedings in death penalty cases to the state attorney general rather than local district attorneys. This move short-circuits the efforts of more liberal district attorneys who lean against the death penalty — and who have also spoken outagainst anti-LGBTQ laws and indicated their resistance to prosecuting abortion cases. A different Tennessee death penalty bill, which gained widespread attention although it didn’t pass, would have expedited some executions, giving those sentenced to death less of a chance for clemency. The sponsor of that latter bill, Janice Bowling, also sponsored bills and spewed rhetoric opposing abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and the right of minors to choose vaccination.
In Iowa and West Virginia, legislators recently mulled bringing back the death penalty for certain offenses. Both states abolished state-sponsored executions in 1965. The reinstatement bill in Iowa, which didn’t make it to a floor vote, was sponsored by state Sen. Brad Zaun, a vocal advocate of book censorship who supports imprisoning teachers, librarians and school administrators who share material related to sexuality, trans issues and a range of other topics. The West Virginia bill didn’t make it far either — but its introduction and debate are significant, given that its sponsor also proposed legislation creating a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” setting massive restrictions on the teaching of social justice curricula and banning Medicaid payment for gender-affirming surgeries.
Right-wing lawmakers have also been attempting to expand the variety of brutal methods used in executions. Idaho began to allow executions by firing squad in late March. Gov. Brad Little signed that bill the same week he signed a bill to ban trans students from using the bathrooms consistent with their gender, and another that could mandate that schools inform the parents of children who have come out as queer or trans. Little also previously signed a bill against “critical race theory” in schools, along with other signature tenets of the current right-wing agenda.
The alignment is clear: Right-wing forces are pushing state-sanctioned murder as part of a broader program of violent repression.
Indeed, Donald Trump himself is eyeing an expansion of the death penalty as a central component of his 2024 campaign.
Even as fascist forces try to bring executions back into the realm of standard practice, we must remember a critical lesson of the present-day abolitionist movement: Prison itself is a kind of death penalty.
Blue states haven’t escaped the death penalty push. In Illinois, where the death penalty is abolished, State Rep. John Cabello proposed legislation to reinstatethe punishment in some cases, including when a police officer is killed and when a homicide occurs in a religious institution. Unsurprisingly, Cabello has also recently been a chief cosponsor of anti-trans legislation and has a history of sponsoring bills opposing abortion rights. In March, Illinois State Rep. Dave Severin proposed a similar death penalty bill — reinstating state-perpetrated murder in response to the killing of a police officer — while also sponsoringan anti-trans bill.
In Delaware, Republicans are now pushing for a reinstatement of the death penalty via a bill that purports to “revise” and “narrow” the state’s death sentencing statute. That statute was struck down by the Delaware Supreme Court in 2016, leaving the state no route to impose the death penalty. As Kristin Froehlich, a member of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, told Truthout in an email, “For the last seven years since Delaware’s death penalty has been inactive, we have had the opportunity to be free of the pretense that the death penalty improves public safety, supports victims’ family members, uses taxpayer money wisely, and is applied fairly.”
But the new bill’s advocates want to bring back executions — against the wishes of activists who, like Froehlich, are family members of murder victims. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Buckson, defended the bill at a hearing on June 14, insisting that he was doing so “on behalf of victims.” While styling himself as a “common sense” Republican, Buckson has hit similar notes to much of the right wing on issues beyond the death penalty: In just the past week, Buckson complained about a change from “woman” to “person” in a bill about postpartum mental health. On his campaign site, he stated that “school boards need to be empowered to push back on a WOKE mentality.”
As Alice Kim wrote for Truthout last year, right-wing actions to preserve the death penalty are happening against the backdrop of President Joe Biden’s failure to fully end the federal death penalty, which was one of his campaign promises.
As lawmakers push for expansions and reinstatements of the death penalty, they’re also shaping laws that could potentially subject growing numbers of people to it. For example, right-wing legislators have proposed bills that could allow people to be executed for obtaining an abortion.
Most bills to reinstate the death penalty, and many of the bills aimed at making it more widely used, aren’t likely to pass. However, we must take seriously the fact that they’re being introduced and promoted — by the same right-wingers pushing other mechanisms of death, including the current leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Death penalty proposals force us to defend basic moderate priorities, like continued abolition of the penalty in states where it’s already abolished. The right loves to build scenarios that attempt to force our conversations and our goals into the bounds of their terms, especially when that means defending long-held wins or pleading to preserve so-called kinder, gentler mechanisms of death, such as long-term imprisonment. The right wants us to leave people behind.
Rejecting All Death Penalties
We must refuse to fight on the right’s terms. While pushing back definitively against the right wing’s amped-up death penalty drive, we must also support the efforts of groups working to end death by incarceration (otherwise known as “life sentences”). Organizations and campaigns including the Drop LWOP Coalition, Release Aging People in Prison, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), the Amistad Law Project, and many more are doing powerful work to end a punishment that, as Bret Grote of ALC notes, is “archaic, cruel, unjustified, and indefensible.” Imprisoned people, including survivors of gender-based violence sentenced to die behind bars, are a key part of this struggle, as Victoria Law has reported.
And even as fascist forces try to bring executions back into the realm of standard practice, we must remember a critical lesson of the present-day abolitionist movement: Prison itself is a kind of death penalty. “Each year in prison takes two years off an individual’s life expectancy,” according to a Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) report. Given the U.S.’s level of incarceration, that reduction has shortened the overall average life expectancy for people in this country, the report notes. With nearly 2 million people locked in prisons and local jails, and millions more in other carceral systems, much of the U.S. is entrapped in a machinery of death. Loved ones of incarcerated people also have shortened life expectancies, another PPI report states, and they’re also more likely to face serious health issues.
Beyond life expectancy, we must remember that any length of incarceration is a theft of life. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains in Futures of Black Radicalism, “Today’s prisons are extractive…. What’s extracted from the extracted is the resource of life — time.” Stealing days, weeks, months and years from imprisoned people means taking away parts of life itself.
Additionally, we must acknowledge the lethality of the right-wing agenda more broadly. Refusing to challenge the racism ingrained in school curricula is deadly. Banning trans health care is deadly. Banning abortion is deadly. Banning sex education in schools is deadly.
And if we look at the right’s spending priorities — cutting funds for housing, food, health care, child care and senior support while devoting the bulk of the U.S. discretionary budget to the military — its goals become all the more clear.
As we oppose the harrowing bills promoting the death penalty, we must reject all of these other death penalties, too. We must imagine and work toward a life-affirming society, a society free of all forms of state-sanctioned killing. As Ejeris Dixon writesfor Truthout, “This is what scares fascists the most — that the left will envision and execute a world that eliminates the hierarchies that they depend upon.”
Even as right-wing legislators push lethal punishments, let’s hold fast to the vision and the practice of liberation, a practice that leaves no one behind.
Maya Schenwar is director of the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism. She is also Truthout‘s editor-at-large and board president. She is the co-author of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms; author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better; and co-editor of the Truthout anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. In addition to Truthout, Maya’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, NBC News and The Nation, and she has appeared on Democracy Now!, MSNBC, C-SPAN, NPR, and other television and radio programs. Maya lives in Chicago.