To mark the 15th World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2017, this expert blog by Robin Maher examines the the links between poverty and the use of the death penalty.
What does poverty have to do with the death penalty? In a word, everything. There is no greater indictment of the death penalty than the way in which it victimizes the poorest among us.
Poverty is not abstract. Three billion people in the world live on $2.50 a day or less. More than 800 million people do not have enough food to eat, and according to UNICEF, 22,000 children worldwide die each day due to poverty. If drinking a glass of clean water could cure every deadly disease, 750 million people would still die because they have no access to a clean water source.
In a world that uses the death penalty, poverty is both a personal characteristic and a risk factor. Death row prisoners in Pakistan, the United States, China, Malaysia, Malawi, and Nigeria have little in common – except that they are poor. Without resources, poor people accused of serious crimes cannot retain skilled and effective lawyers to present an adequate defense. Many countries do not provide poor defendants with zealous advocates. This is a serious and sometimes fatal disadvantage when the tremendous resources and authority of the government are brought to bear upon a defendant in a criminal trial. Without a lawyer to investigate the government’s allegations and tell the story of the client’s life at sentencing, a death sentence is an often a foregone conclusion.
Poor people are also helpless in corrupt systems that are fueled by bribes and payoffs, and more vulnerable to abuses because they are without powerful friends and allies. Their lifelong, daily struggle to meet basic needs often means that the poorest are also traumatized, uneducated, and suffering from untreated mental or physical illnesses. All of this ensures that being put on trial and facing a possible death sentence will be one of the most overwhelming and terrifying experiences of their lives. Worse, there is little chance for justice when money and influence are more important than guilt or innocence.
The death penalty still has its defenders – those who say that it is necessary to punish the worst offenders, who believe it is religiously sanctioned, or who argue that it keeps society safe. These and other myths about the death penalty have been thoroughly debunked by reports issued by organizations such as Penal Reform International (PRI), which has a long history of campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty and for the rights of prisoners. But there is no evidence as convincing as the suffering of the men and women whose poverty is responsible for their death sentences. This single fact may be the most compelling reason for abolition of the death penalty.
In recent years, the growing worldwide trend away from use of the death penalty means that 141 countries have now abolished it in law or practice. For governments that persist in use of the death penalty, PRI has urged compliance with international human rights standards that protect vulnerable persons, ensure fair trials, and restrict the use of the death penalty. Respecting international standards will bring important improvements to the mechanisms of death that send so many poor people to be executed. But only abolition will truly end the profoundly unjust and cruel effect of the death penalty.
The gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger in many countries around the world, as has the number of people living in extreme poverty. On this World Day Against the Death Penalty, it is therefore more urgent than ever that we acknowledge the relationship between poverty and the death penalty. This grave sanction, that disproportionately punishes the poor, the vulnerable, and the most marginalized members of society, cannot have continued support from any person of conscience.