Friday, September 23, 2011

Troy Davis and the minority death penalty

This week’s execution of convicted cop-killer Troy Davis in Georgia had sparked protests and appeals for clemency from around the world. Even many people who normally support the death penalty believed that with the recanted testimonies of several prosecution witnesses, there was too much doubt to allow the execution of Davis to proceed.

In many cases, the race of the defendant is a factor in opposition to the death penalty. Critics have long charged that there is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. According to, blacks make up about 12 percent of the US population and 30 percent of the population of Georgia. Hispanics make up 16 percent of the US population and eight percent of Georgia’s.

In contrast, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of blacks on death row and who have already been executed is out of proportion the percentage of blacks in the general population. Recent statistics show that 44 percent of death row inmates are white and an approximately equal percentage, 42 percent, are black. Hispanics make up 12 percent of death row inmates. In the past, 56 percent of executed inmates have been white. Thirty-five percent of past executions have killed blacks and seven percent have killed Hispanics. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, blacks are imprisoned at a much higher rate than Latinos or whites.

Rather than racism, the racial disparity on death row and in our prisons can most likely be attributed to the disintegration of the black family over the past half century. President Obama recognized the problem in a Father’s Day address in 2008 when he said, “More than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children.” According to Politifact, the percentage of black single parent families has risen from 22 percent in 1960 to 54 percent in 2006.

Put another way, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 67 percent of black children grow in single-parent homes, as do 53 percent of American Indians and 40 percent of Hispanics. The percentage of white children in single-family homes, 24 percent, is much less but still significant.

Many of these fatherless children end up inside prisons. Troy Davis was one. According to the Savannah Morning News, Davis’ mother divorced his father when Troy was very young. The oldest of five children, Troy was forced to grow up at an early age.

Without positive male role models, many children from single-parent families get into trouble with the law according to statistics on Children who grow up without fathers are twice as likely to become juvenile delinquents or teenage mothers. Seventy percent of long term prison inmates, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of juvenile murderers grew up without fathers. Children without fathers are more likely to drop out of school and are 40 times more likely to become victims of child abuse.

By the time children reach their teens or, as with Troy Davis, they are sent to prison or death row, it is often too late. Chuck Colson, himself a former inmate, started Prison Fellowship in 1977 as a ministry to reach out to prisoners and their families. The ministries of Prison Fellowship include Angel Tree, which gives Christmas presents to the children of prison inmates, and Innerchange, a faith-based program for prisoners that focuses on rehabilitation instead of merely punishing prisoners.

Much of the blame for the destruction of the black family unit can ultimately be traced to well-intentioned federal programs. As Walter Williams explained in the Wall Street Journal, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn't do, what Jim Crow couldn't do, what the harshest racism couldn't do, and that is to destroy the black family.”

The fatherless upbringing of Troy Davis does not excuse his shooting of Michael Cooper, his assault on Larry Young, or his murder of Mark MacPhail, but it does help us to understand why he committed those crimes. More importantly, it gives us clues about how to keep from raising another generation of violent criminals.

The answer to the problem of greater percentages of minorities on death row or incarcerated in our prisons is not to impose racial quotas on the death chamber or to release large numbers of convicted criminals back into society. The way to address the problem of crime by children from single-parent families is to address the problem of single-parent families. Steps must be taken to minimize divorce and promote stable marriages. This is the way to save the next Troy Davis.

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