Will philanthropy sit on the sidelines as the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty fights to eliminate capital punishment?

Written by: Troy Price

Date: January 23, 2018

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty logoEditor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series of posts featuring NCRP nonprofit members.

“The American people, fully informed as to the purposes of the death penalty and its liabilities, would in my view reject it as morally unacceptable.” The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) has taken Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words as gospel, and is now in its 41st year of transforming his insight into action.

As it turns out, he was largely correct in his assessment: When Americans are fully informed of the death penalty’s shortcomings, they roundly reject its implementation. However, the trouble lies in actually informing the public.

NCADP serves as a resource for 100 grassroots organizations seeking abolition at the state and municipal levels. The coalition has earned several victories over the past decade, but scarce funding to build out the infrastructure of NCADP has kept progress slower than an otherwise healthier funding stream would have allowed.

Philanthropy must invest in the basic infrastructure necessary for organizations like NCADP to be successful in informing and persuading the public about the injustice of many of our social institutions and systems, and it must commit to doing so over the long term.

It’s worth reviewing why the death penalty should be discarded:

  • For every 11 people sentenced to death since 1973, 10 have been executed and one has later been exonerated. This is an egregious error rate for something so consequential. To borrow Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson’s analogy, we would never fly on airplanes if one crashed for every 11 that took off.
  • Capital punishment is more expensive than alternative sentences. One study found that first-degree murder cases in Oklahoma for which the death penalty was pursued cost 3.2 times as much as those that did not. California has spent $4 billion on the death penalty since 1978. This money could instead be funneled to victims’ services for anything ranging from grief counseling to funeral costs to paid work leave for court hearings. Additional support would go a long way, as victims’ families lament the painful, lengthy appeals process that forces them to relive their nightmare over and over.
  • The death penalty has no deterrent effect on murder rates in the United States.

These realities are not exempt from the persistent racial bias that has long marred our entire criminal justice system, including its most severe consequence. While people of color account for roughly half of all homicide victims, the death penalty is most frequently used when the victim is white. Since 1976, 288 black defendants have been put to death for killing white victims, but only 20 white defendants have been executed for murdering black victims. Plainly stated, capital punishment treats certain victims as better and certain defendants as worse based on the color of their skin.

One has to ask how such a flawed, costly and biased process remains on the books in 31 states. The standard for capturing the public’s attention is high, and the death penalty appears to affect only a small number of people – even though its impact is much broader. It would take a steady, strategic communication plan to convince the unaffected.

Sparse infrastructure funding has made executing such a plan difficult for NCADP, though not for of a lack of vision on the coalition’s part. Executive Director Diann Rust-Tierney would use a boost to general operations funding to hire a communications director to ferry NCADP’s message from frontline activists to the public writ large. The new hire could amplify the futile role capital punishment plays in preventing violent crime through concerted messaging on social and traditional media, appeals to national partners for access to their networks, conference calls, letters to the editor and engagement with grassroots organizations.

But NCADP continues to push forward, with or without ideal funding. In 2014, the coalition launched the 90 million strong campaign to empower individual activists with the tools and resources necessary to erase the death penalty.

A recent partnership with Lush Cosmetics has signed up more than 22,000 people to receive information and training to advocate against the death penalty and for policies that keep communities safe. NCADP also advised Lush on what national, state and local level organizations to whom it should direct its “Charity Pot” funds.

NCADP’s dogged pursuit of a more humane criminal justice system should hearten observers in the philanthropic community. But is it right that an organization with such an undeniably consequential mission should have to thrift its way through this fight?

The question isn’t whether the death penalty will be struck down, but when. Every day it remains on the books, capital punishment jeopardizes the lives of the potentially innocent and unjustly sentenced, while undercutting our commitment to a more fair and humane society for all. Is philanthropy willing to propel the movement across the finish line, or just watch as NCADP sweats out the final laps? For some, time is running out.

Troy Price is NCRP’s membership and fundraising intern. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

Image by Andrew Petro, used under Creative Commons license.