Virginia Moves to Abolish the Death Penalty: What This Means For America

Virginia, a state known for its prolific imposition of the death penalty for capital crime throughout its history, has moved to abolish the system in a landmark piece of legislation that the State House and Senate have approved. This legislation is significant for its substance, sure, but it goes much deeper than that for many Americans. Throughout our nation’s history, criminal justice reform has evolved yet remains a contentious debate today.

To see a southern state abolish a law that many advocates view as a direct descendant of Jim Crow is momentous and a victory for those aiming to dismantle the laws and policies where racial inequality exists.

Critics of racial disparity in capital punishment often cite that more White people have been convicted of capital crimes and executed than Black people. They also note America’s justice system must enforce penalties that fit the severity of crimes committed to deter future offenders from violence.

But, what are the facts? Does abolishing the death penalty in Virginia address systemic issues in our criminal justice system? Or will it be seen as too lenient and followed by an increase in violent crime?

Examining the numbers behind criminal offenders sentenced to death, it is true that there have been more convictions of White people than Black people. But when we compare the numbers to their respective racial demographics, we see a higher number of Blacks convicted per capita.

Perhaps the most telling statistic that shows racial bias in capital punishment is among the number of executions based on the race of the inmate’s victim. Since 1976, there have been 21 executions of a White inmate where the victim was Black. In that same period, there have been 297 executions of a Black inmate where the victim was White.

Statistics like this make one thing clear: the current criminal justice system reflects in its decisions that White defendants are far less likely to receive the maximum punishment for similar crimes committed by Black defendants.

In addition to this, many social science studies have shown that the murder rate and crime rate in a state do not correlate with whether capital punishment is legal or not. Most research comes back inconclusive as there isn’t enough data to prove those theories.

The truth is, society can’t tell if the death penalty prevents capital crimes. So, does abolishing it help ease racial inequality in the criminal justice system? While it is a step in the right direction, it is more treatment of a symptom than the cause. It shows a lack of equality and fairness in sentencing guidelines and resources than anything else.

Let’s look at the death penalty as a standalone issue. We may say that sentencing is inconsistent, but this isn’t necessarily a valid argument because most crimes have uneven sentencing structures and are governed by more than the merits of the crime itself.

Research also shows that harsher sentences, including the death penalty, can be influenced by economic factors. One example is defendants only having access to court-appointed lawyers who have larger case-loads and paid significantly less than private attorneys. Economic inequality in the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts defendants from poor communities and communities of color.

So, where does all this leave us?

The bottom line is there will always be moral and ethical questions surrounding the death penalty. Do courts have the right to take someone’s life? And, alternately, is death the only penalty that justifies the most heinous of crimes?

Regardless, what is clear is that the death penalty shines a stark spotlight on the inequity within our criminal justice system. Virginia’s historic decision can hopefully shed more light on the existential debate of reforming the system as a whole.

Unlock The Grid is a national, youth-led bipartisan organization that aims to reduce polarization in Congress by promoting working across the aisle.