More than 130 business leaders and The Independent have signed a declaration calling for an end to the death penalty. The Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty campaign has been gathering support from global CEOs since it launched in March - and I’m not surprised.
Capital punishment embodies many of the things company leaders know they must speak out about: it is racist in its implementation; disproportionately impacts those who are poor and mentally ill; it is frequently used a tool of political oppression and social control; and it is frighteningly expensive for something that doesn’t work.
Across the US, elected leaders are recognizing the death penalty does not serve their constituents. Governor Spencer Cox of Utah said he is reevaluating his formerly supportive position on the death penalty; Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio has implemented a de facto moratorium on executions. Business leaders are seeing this too: it doesn’t increase the wellbeing of the communities in which they invest and operate, in fact it does the opposite.
The statistics that exemplify the death penalty’s glaring flaws bear repeating here. It’s racist – you are four times more likely to receive a death sentence if you are Black than if you are white, for an equivalent crime. It’s ineffective – states that practice it have higher murder rates. It’s incredibly expensive – to execute someone costs $2 million more than a life sentence. It’s unacceptably error-prone – for every eight people executed, one innocent person is exonerated.
Its failings are recognized around the world - resulting in pressure from allies and trade partners to discard the practice. On Monday the EU ambassador to the United States, Stavros Lambrinidis, flanked by the Swedish ambassador, Karin Olofsdotter, called for more companies to step forward to support abolition. Membership of the EU is predicated on ending the death penalty, and European countries (as well as nations like Mexico, Canada and Australia) have consistently reiterated its importance - even prioritizing it over trade. In 2018, the UK government issued a report stating that in the case of a conflict between trade negotiations and its human rights priorities - of which the death penalty is one - the latter should prevail. In 2019, the French State Pension Fund blacklisted the US treasuries market on the basis of America’s use of capital punishment. European nations have put their trading and investment power on the table because they believe so strongly in the importance of ending executions.
Equally, companies and their leaders increasingly recognize their responsibility to be a force for good in society. Six in ten Americans say it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues, and half assume that companies who remain quiet don’t care. At the same time, the past 18 months have shown us that America’s broken justice system is the most pressing social issue facing a generation. The death penalty is the starkest example of discrimination, ineffectiveness and cruelty that define it.
So why are companies wading in now? The answer is simple: they know they can have an impact. Decades of work by campaigners and advocates -- many of whom have lived experience of capital punishment, either because they sat innocent on death row for years or because their loved ones were victims of violent crime - has driven the death penalty to a tipping point. For the first time ever, most Americans prefer alternative punishments for murder. Support for the death penalty continues to decline – and many jurisdictions are poised to do away with it. Earlier this year Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish - the state which has executed more people than any other. Republican-led campaigns are marching forwards in Utah and Ohio. The potential to end the death penalty feels within grasping reach, and companies - and the people that run them - know their unparalleled influence and leverage brings power to the table, at a time when campaigners need them the most.
The systemic shock of Covid-19 combined and the outrage that followed George Floyd’s murder have been a reckoning for justice systems around the world. People are demanding a fairer and more equal world, and we have an opportunity to rebuild one. As the economic engines of our post-pandemic recovery, and some of the loudest voices in our global society, employers and investors can help realize a better justice system - and they’re doing just that. Lawmakers and decision makers should be paying attention, business leaders are entering into the fray and demanding an end to capital punishment. There’s a new incentive for ending the death penalty: abolition is good for business.
Celia Ouellette is the founder and CEO of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice which is partnering with The Independent in a campaign against the death penalty
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