February 10, 2023

Commute Federal Death Row

Russ Feingold President

This week, President Biden renewed his commitment to “restore the soul of the nation” in his State of the Union address. He went on to say that “our nation is working for more freedom, more dignity and more peace, not just in Europe, but everywhere.” As President Biden works to achieve this vision, there is one opportunity he must not miss to repair the soul of this nation: commute federal death row.

We are an outlier amongst our allies in our retention of capital punishment. The federal government and 24 states still have the death penalty, and three more states still have it in their laws, but with a moratorium on executions.

The death penalty is inherently discriminatory and unjust, employed not against those who commit the most heinous crimes, but against the most vulnerable and marginalized. If there is a single trait that has consistently defined the American death penalty, it’s racism. Since inception, the death penalty has been a tool of white supremacy authoritarianism, utilized disproportionately to execute Black men.

This is true at the state and federal level. The race of the defendant and the race of the victim are leading factors in determining who is sentenced to death and executed. The result: capital punishment is sought disproportionately against Black defendants in cases where the victim(s) is white. Today, Black people make up 12.1 percent of the national population, but 37 percent of the federal death row population, and 41 percent of the state death row population.

Recent history of the death penalty has only further marred the soul of this nation.  In the final months of his presidency, President Trump executed 13 people in 6 months – more than quadruple the number of federal executions that had taken place before then since 1988, when the federal death penalty was reinstated. Inspired by Trump’s execution spree, multiple conservative states subsequently carried out their own depraved execution sprees, with multiple botched executions. And as I write this, several more executions are planned in the coming months.

President Biden cannot abolish the federal death penalty on his own, and he cannot prevent state executions, but he can commute federal death row. He can ensure that this country does not witness another federal execution spree. He can send a clear message to the country and to the world we are moving towards abolition – and working to restore the soul of our nation.

Clemency/Pardons and Commutations, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Race and Criminal Justice