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Capital Punishment and How it Relates to Poverty and Race

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Capital punishment is a legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime. Within the criminal justice system, Capital punishment has aroused controversy due to discrimination. Many death row cases involve those of color and people in poverty as the defendants. “All that time, I never met a rich person sitting on death row” (Ndume Olatushani, UNHR). Olatushani spent twenty years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and during that time he never met a rich person sitting on death row with him. There were only the poor. In the ruling of cases with capital punishment, judges and juries-even if unaware- are conditioned to think about those of color and those who come from poor backgrounds as no good. (Dovidio, ASA interview). White people can't help but think racially-biased thoughts because of the way society's biases imprint on them.


Between 1889 and 1918, around three thousand four hundred forty-six of lynchings happened. The victims of these lynchings were primarily those of color. Some of the reasons for these lynchings are absurd and so insignificant, such as looking at someone across the street. They would be punished by death without a trial. Yet, those who lynched others (white supremacists) had no repercussions and were never sentenced to anything. Eight out of ten of these lynchings occurred in the south. More than eight out of ten of the fifteen hundred executions carried out from 1949 to present have also been in the south. (EJI). One implication of the south's treatment towards people of color is that the criminal justice system views those of a different race in a negative light. People in the south were taught, even if unknowing, views of racism and those racist views were consequently embedded into their minds. “the majority of white Americans, because they’ve grown up in a culture that has been historically racist in many ways, because they’re exposed to the media that associates violence, drugs and poverty with certain groups” (Dovidio, ASA interview). 34.1% percent of those executed while on death row are black. (Death Penalty Information Center)The United States General Accounting Office found that in eighty-two percent of the cases that invoke the death penalty, the victim's race influenced the court's decision. (Death Penalty Information Center) For example, people who killed whites are more likely to be sentenced than those who killed people of color. Forty-two percent of the two thousand seven hundred people who are on death row are black. To add to the bias only one percent of the chief prosecutors of death penalty cases are black, creating a barrier in the criminal justice system that people of color can't get over. (Death Penalty Information Center) “Their review found that for homicides committed under otherwise similar circumstances, and where defendants had similar criminal histories, a defendant was several times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim was white than if his victim was African American.”(ACLU) People of color currently make up fifty-five percent of those on death row. The ACLU is saying that people of color are currently oppressed in the criminal justice system. White judges and juries have a bias towards those of color and towards those who are “beneath them”, causing a significant difference in the demographics of those charged with capital punishment. The bias surrounding highly diverse people carries into the bias surrounding diverse areas as well. Because crime rates are higher in highly diverse areas people think of those areas as the lower class.

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With the death penalty as a possible sentence, social class is inexplicably related to the outcome of such a case. The poor are helpless in legal altercations because they cannot post bail nor can they hire a good lawyer. In a case where the prosecution motions for the death penalty, the stakes are raised even higher. Rich people can easily win a court battle with the right lawyer, which to them is affordable. “The death penalty is reserved for those who cannot buy themselves out of an arrest, cannot afford legal representation, cannot afford a decent appeal, and carry no weight in the eyes of the government,” (Alston, Phillip). What Alston is trying to convey is that those who are on death row are those living in poverty. To summarize his words, the death penalty is reserved for the poor. The poor cannot hire private lawyers to help their case so, they receive court-appointed lawyers'. Ninety-five percent of those on death row come from impoverished backgrounds. Stating only five percent of those executed are not poor. In a study recently conducted by the University of New Delhi, twenty percent of convicts on death row have never attended school. In addition to this information, eighty-nine percent of those sentenced to death have not been able to exercise the right to an attorney. Causing the defense to be at the mercy of the prosecution, judge, and jury. (FIDH) Twice as many African Americans live in poverty than Caucasians. African Americans have a poverty rate of twenty point eight percent while Caucasians have a poverty rate of ten point one percent. (2018 US Census data) Around nine million African Americans are living in poverty, while only eight percent of white people are living in poverty. (TalktoPoverty) Social class and race directly correlate with each other because most people in the lower class are people of color. The combination of racial prejudice and poverty plays a major role in court cases with the death penalty. These two factors influence the judge and jury to fall back on the stereotypes that black people are criminals and that those in poverty carry no weight in society. If an average African American man (came from a poor background) was convicted of a murder he would most likely receive the death penalty without the possibility of an appeal. However, if an average White man (middle-class income background) was convicted of the same charges, he would be able to get a good lawyer, appeal to a higher court, and, if convicted, would probably serve life with the possibility of parole.


Poverty and racial bias decide a man's fate when he faces the death penalty. From here we can only fight for complete equality. Courts should all uphold the value of equality and push biases aside when deciding the outcome of a case. If our justice system continues to be biased it will lose its credibility and become corrupt in the eyes of the American people. An extreme solution to this issue would be to abolish capital punishment in any sense. To do this the people must advocate for those on death row and those who were put to death because of their circumstances.

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Capital Punishment and How it Relates to Poverty and Race. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
“Capital Punishment and How it Relates to Poverty and Race.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Capital Punishment and How it Relates to Poverty and Race. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2023].
Capital Punishment and How it Relates to Poverty and Race [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Dec 8]. Available from:
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