February 26, 2001
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) historically has stood in opposition to the death penalty and, in February 2000, joined the American Bar Association’s call for a death penalty moratorium until issues of fairness, impartiality, and the risk of error are resolved. That call was spurred by new information about the likelihood that wrongfully convicted individuals could be executed. The JCPA also urged the appointment of a commission to study the frequency with which death row inmates have later been found to be not guilty and the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. At both the federal and state level, death penalty studies show racial bias and poverty continue to play a role in determining who is sentenced to death. Recent U.S. Justice Department findings, in a review that is ongoing, reveal both racial and geographic disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty. The study has found so far that just a handful of U.S. attorneys accounted for 40 percent of federal death penalty cases and that members of minority groups were represented disproportionately among those on federal death row.
Of 21 federal prisoners currently facing death sentences, 17 are members of racial/ethnic minorities. Today, more than half of those on death row nationwide, both state and federal, are people of color. Nearly half of those executed by states in the last two decades have been minorities. Further, studies documenting the role of poverty in death penalty disparities reveal a failure to provide adequate representation for indigent people accused of capital crimes and inadequate funding to enable those defending them to prepare proper defenses.
In light of these data, the JCPA reaffirms its call for a federal and statewide death penalty moratorium. Both supporters of the death penalty and opponents, such as the JCPA, are concerned about flaws in the system by which the government imposes sentences of death. We must not allow the understandable desire for punishment to overshadow the impartial pursuit of justice. The JCPA therefore, further resolves to:
- Urge that the study of factors that contribute to wrongful sentencing and convictions include racial disparities, disproportionality based on geographic location and income status of defendants, and adequacy of representation of capital defendants;
- Urge the federal and state governments to provide legal mechanisms whereby persons sentenced to death can challenge their convictions or sentences, despite the passage of time, on the basis of reliable scientific information, such as DNA testing, not available at the time of trial or post-conviction proceedings.
- Call on the federal and state governments to provide for the collection and analysis of data to determine the extent, if any, to which disparate treatment of those sentenced to death is attributable to race or ethnicity and to act to eliminate disparities, where they exist;
- Consistent with previous JCPA positions, call upon state legislatures in those states that do not impose a death penalty to reject calls for enactment of death penalty legislation;
- Support recommendations of the American Bar Association, calling for the imposition of a moratorium on use of the death penalty by the federal government and all 50 states, to remain in force until policies and procedures can be implemented to ensure the fair and impartial administration of death penalty cases, and to minimize the risk that innocent people might be executed. These include:
- Assurance that all those accused of capital crimes receive competent counsel at every step in the judicial process, with adequate funding for a fully investigated defense;
- Measures to preserve, enhance, and streamline the authority and responsibility of federal and state courts to exercise independent judgment on the merits of constitutional claims in state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings;
- Elimination of discrimination in capital sentencing on the basis of race of victim or defendant; and
- Provisions that inhibit execution of mentally retarded people and those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offenses.