“Halfe to food and halfe to the homeless.”
The phrase was clearly written by a child. The words in green marker stood out in the middle of the large poster board surrounded by other phrases like: trauma informed treatment, substance abuse services, affordable housing and health care for everyone. All were responses to a single question:
How would you spend $11 million dollars to keep your community healthy and safe?
This figure was not a random amount. A 2009 Duke study offers the only comprehensive look at the total costs of the North Carolina death penalty. It found that death penalty prosecutions cost state taxpayers at least $11 million a year, a figure that’s likely gone up in the years since. So as we concluded a week marking the 16th anniversary of the last execution in our state, we asked people to envision another way to spend that money.
This visioning was part of an August 19 gathering at Pullen Park, where we shared a meal and heard from two inspiring speakers. We were just a short distance from where we had started the week on Monday with our Vigil of Remembrance and Recommitment in front of Central Prison. There, we read the names of the 43 people executed in our state since the reinstatement of the death penalty nearly four decades ago. By Friday, we were ready to look to the future and name what we believed would help make our state safer and healthier.
In addition to several children, more than 45 of us gathered. Some who were among us hold vigil every Monday afternoon outside Central Prison. Several facilitate restorative circles on death row and many regularly correspond with people on the row. Two attorneys arrived a little late, having just finished day five of jury selection for a capital trial in Wake County. Members of our Coalition organizations were also present, welcoming our newest partner organization – Catholics for Abolition in North Carolina. Our community included family members of people sentenced to death and family members of people who have been murdered. Many people new to the death penalty movement joined us, ready to spend a Friday evening learning and talking together.
Throughout the week of events we declared it is not enough that we no longer have executions; we must end the death penalty entirely. We’re no longer satisfied to name what we don’t want. Now we will say what we want and will have. On Friday, we moved beyond acknowledging the death penalty’s high cost, and we wrote with absolute clarity how our tax money must be spent to create safe and healthy communities.
The list generated at Friday’s event read like a list of what those of us engaged in capital defense lament our clients never had: free daycare, affordable housing, quality public education, re-entry support, and more fully funded services and compensation for victims’ families. And harkening back to the child who identified “halfe to food,” one person wrote, “Make sure no child goes hungry.” True violence prevention means addressing these inequities in childhood, many rooted in systemic racism, that directly impact their futures and, by extension, our communities’ health and safety.
We know what we need instead of the death penalty in North Carolina. Join us as we create a new vision of justice and make these words on our poster board reality.