Racial Injustice in the Death Penalty System

Justice Is Not Blind for African American and Latino Communities

Our criminal justice system is unequal, and the California death penalty system perpetuates inequality and bias based on race, geography, and the ability to afford a good lawyer.

Deep Racial Bias

California’s death row population is roughly 36 percent African American—nearly six times the proportion of all African American Californians – and non-white minorities make up nearly 67 percent of California’s death row population.

The United States has a deeply flawed and biased death penalty system that risks executing innocent people, and of the 156 people who have been exonerated and freed from death row, nearly 60 percent have been African American or Latino.

Replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole will erase the most extreme inequality of our criminal justice system – the death penalty.

Racial disparities in death sentencing are simply unequal and rooted in bias. The race of the victim has been shown time and again to be a major factor in death penalty sentencing, and those with white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than those with African American victims.

The majority of murder victims are African Americans and Latinos, yet juries impose the death penalty more often when the victim is white and the accused is not. In the United States, there have been 297 African American defendants sentenced to death when the victim was white, and just 31 white defendants sentenced to death when the victim was African American.

Racial inequality in our failed death penalty system is not just a problem of the past: in 2015, 12 out of 14 people sentenced to death in California were African American, Latino, or other minority.

"The NAACP has a strong adverse opinion on the death penalty in general, particularly in cases of botched executions stemming from a shortage of drugs; the death penalty system's racial disparities; and death row inmates later found to be innocent. There is a real need for California to consider getting rid of the death penalty in California. The findings depict a disparity in the implementation of the death penalty in California -- out of 748 inmates on death row over 36% (271) are African American and less than 35% are white (259). "

Alice Huffman, President California NAACP

Geographic and Economic Disparities

Across the country, the death penalty is on the decline, yet a recent report identified that California is home to 5 of the 16 “deadliest” counties in America – these are the counties that impose the death penalty far more often than all other counties in America, and all of them have large African American, Latino, or poor populations. These counties are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias, leading to systemic problems that include the conviction of innocent people.

Replacing the failed death penalty system with life in prison without parole will end these geographic and economic inequalities.

While California has just 12 percent of the US population, those five counties generated nearly one-quarter of our nation’s death sentences last year. It has been shown that geographic disparities are caused by many unequal factors including local political pressures, demographics, prosecutorial misconduct, and whether the accused has access to a quality defense.

For low-income Californians facing a murder trial, the system is stacked against them. There are significant legal costs involved in mounting a vigorous defense in a death penalty case, which creates even greater obstacles to receiving an adequate, quality, and most importantly, fair defense.

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer concluded in 2015 that “implementation of the death penalty seems capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary.”

The death penalty is an unfair, biased, and failed system that cannot be allowed to determine who lives and who dies. It’s time to end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole.

"We know that because of racial disparities, and because of income inequalities that people of color do not often get equal justice in our courtrooms. We could have two people who commit the same crime, but if it is a person of color that person is most likely to get convicted because they do not have the resources to get the proper defense for themselves." 

"We have this wonderful opportunity now in the November election where we can actually end the death penalty in California. Our state, we know, has always been a pioneer in justice. We need to bring that justice back. We can do it very simply by voting Yes on Proposition 62. Si se puede!  We can do it!"

Dolores Huerta, former Vice President of the United Farmworkers of America