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California's Death Penalty Vote: It's Time to Reconsider "Justice"

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On Election Day, 52 percent of California voters cast ballots to keep the death penalty.

Such a small margin suggests that voters may be inching closer to abolishing capital punishment in the state. Advocates ran a well-coordinated, anti-death penalty campaign that offered compelling moral, legal and fiscal arguments that did not take hold of the electorate. So why did the majority vote to keep the death penalty?

Some commentators have noted that voters' decision to keep the death penalty was based more on their conception of "justice" than these other arguments. They suggest that the vote indicates a belief that "justice" for a murder victim can be only achieved when the murderer's life is taken away -- an "eye for an eye."

The notion that justice for a crime equals the most extreme punishment is a commonly held conviction in the United States. For example, when President Obama pledged that "justice will be done" in response to the recent attacks on the U.S. Mission in Libya, the automatic assumption was that he meant that those deemed responsible would be killed.

Unfortunately, public and media discussions of crime ignore the widespread and devastating effects of crime -- including the actual crime and the punishment itself -- on society beyond the victim and the perpetrator. Such a discourse cultivates a narrow conception of justice that ignores the societal reverberations and total human costs of policies like the death penalty and mass incarceration.

For example, in our country there are countless families broken with loved ones sitting in prison cells and on death row. Many of these prisoners have serious mental illnesses, which may have contributed to their crimes, yet continue to suffer without adequate treatment. Other prisoners continue to endure untreated psychological trauma, themselves victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

The current criminal justice system does not recognize or take into account the stories of these individuals beyond the crime. As a result, their suffering becomes invisible.

A complete concept of justice should more fully consider and understand the suffering of all those affected by crime. Justice should not be narrow, but expansive. It should consider all the contributing factors and consequences of crime and violence. It should go beyond simple reactionary instincts to punish, but instead focus on shared humanity and shared suffering. Justice should never be satisfied with incomplete narratives about crime that lead to harsh punishment, but should instead always strive toward fairness, equality and inclusion.

Those seeking to reform the criminal justice system should work to educate the public about the stories of all those who suffer at the hands of the criminal justice system. The public, the media and lawmakers can then begin to understand the effects of the instinct to see justice as simply punishment. These stories will reshape the concept of justice.

The vote in California to keep the death penalty -- and other unsuccessful efforts to reform the broken criminal justice system -- provides an opportunity to reflect on how the country can reconsider its collective understanding of justice.

Gabriel Daniel Solis is a Research Associate in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.