By Patrick B. McGuigan, Editor
On Thursday, June 18, the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) hosted a forum on “Mass Incarceration and the Death Penalty,” at the First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City.
Presented by Restoring Justice Oklahoma (RJO), the event kicked off the coalition’s campaign to defeat State Question 776. RJO leaders describe the group as working to address criminal justice reform through citizen awareness and action.
Co-organizer Jonathan Marshall opened by recalling the infamous lynching, in 1911, of an African American mother Laura Nelson and her 13 year old son Lawrence in Okemah, Oklahoma.
A local sheriff was investigating a livestock theft, and Laura’s husband Austin Nelson was a suspect. The sheriff was shot and the mother and the son were charged with murder and were later lynched by town members. The event was immortalized when photos of the two bodies hanging from the North Canadian River bridge were sold as postcards.
Marshall contended the notoriety of the event was not unlike Oklahoma’s status today regarding capital punishment.
Mass incarceration is a major social crisis and one of the biggest problems facing the United States, in the view of many analysts, including sponsors of the RJO event.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics 2013 report showed more than one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. Oklahoma’s overall incarceration rate ranks fourth in the United States and it has the highest rate of female incarceration per capita.
RJO co-organizer Dr. Britney Hopkins reported that, “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The question is why? The War on Drugs, economics, race, and harsh sentencing all play crucial roles.”
Hopkins challenged what she termed “misconceptions” that surround both mass incarceration and the death penalty. “In order to start fixing the problem, we must first educate ourselves,” she said.
“The death penalty is fiscally irresponsible, Studies vary, but it costs anywhere from two to ten times more to execute someone than it does to put them in prison for life. Add to that, the fact that execution doesn’t deter crime. These are important facts in the death penalty debate.”
OK-CADP chair Connie Johnson said, “The relationship between these two issues from an economic perspective alone demands that we do more to educate citizens.
“OK CADP is privileged to host and is grateful to Restoring Justice Oklahoma for presenting this first in our series of many activities designed to increase education and awareness in the coming year in support of OK-CADP’s campaign to defeat State Question 776, constitutionalizing death in Oklahoma.”
Johnson, a former Democratic state Senator, also thanked First Unitarian for use of their facility and for what she described as leadership in the area of social and criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.
S.Q. 776, regarding the Death Penalty, will be on the November 8, 2016 statewide ballot. The measure, if approved, would provide state constitutional language declaring that all “statutes of this state requiring, authorizing, imposing or relating to the death penalty are in full force and effect,” subject to changes in state statute by the legislature or initiative.
S.Q. 776 would forbid, in state law, the death penalty from being construed as “the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments.” However, the impact of such an amendment might be uncertain in light of a present review of Oklahoma’s capital punishment protocols at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rev. Zachary Gleason, RJO co-organizer and pastor at Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City, talked at the forum about the “Biblical View of the Death Penalty.” He said, “Passages such as those from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are written to console and advise people living under the threat of the death penalty. They teach victimized people how to respond to the reality of capital punishment; they do not sanction such violence.
“We abuse the Bible if we distort it into a statement of support for the killing of Jesus and his apostles,” Gleason continued. “When the Bible characterizes authorities as wrathful and overbearing, it becomes clear that they are not models for Christian behavior.”
More than three dozen people attended. Organizers called upon supporters to help educate Oklahoma voters before the November 2016 election that capital punishment is a violation of human rights, racially biased, not a deterrent and a waste of limited resources.