At 6:23 p.m. last Tuesday, as many Americans sat down to eat dinner, Clayton Lockett lay down to die. More accurately, an Oklahoma prison official strapped him to a gurney, sedated him and then injected him in the groin with an untested mix of two more drugs—one to stop his breathing, the other to stop his heart.
Quickly, it became clear that the coldly clinical execution — what the head of the Oklahoma American Civil Liberties Union called “a human science experiment” — had gone horribly awry. At 6:36 p.m., despite being pronounced unconscious, Lockett’s head lifted off the bed. He began moving and mumbling. At 6:39, convulsing, he uttered the words, “oh, man.” By the time the director of prisons announced that there had been a vein failure and issued a stay of execution, it was too late. At 7:06 p.m., Lockett suffered a massive heart attack and breathed his last — 43 excruciating minutes after the execution began.
While Lockett was undoubtedly guilty of heinously raping a young woman and shooting and burying alive another, his state-administered death — just the latest in a horrific series of botched executions — serves as a stark reminder that the death penalty has been a moral, economic and practical failure. According to a new study, 1 out of every 25 people sentenced to death between 1973 and 2004 — around 300 people — were likely innocent. Many of these wrongful convictions stem from a well-documented racial bias in the criminal justice system — 55 percent of death row inmates are black or Hispanic, and those who kill whites are far more likely to receive the death penalty than killers whose victims are black. Keeping the country’s 3,000-plus inmates on death row costs us billions — California alone spends $184 million annually on capital punishment — all for a system that experts agree has never been proven to be a succesful deterrent.
But while incidents like Lockett’s illuminate one corner of the bleak cell that is the American criminal justice system, we cannot ignore the larger rot at the heart of the enterprise. As of 2012, 2.2 million Americans were in jail or prison — by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Roughly 60 percent of prisoners are minorities, prisoners of what the legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” Many are victims of the “war on drugs,” which, through mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws and gaping sentencing disparities, has swept up millions of nonviolent drug offenders. We spend $80 billion per year on our prison system — and state spending on prisons has grown six times faster than its spending on higher education.
What have these draconian detention policies bought us? Higher rates of violent crime than European countries that have more moderate sentencing policies. Revolving-door recidivism that sees more than 40 percent of released prisoners rearrested within three years. Promising young lives destroyed by the possession of a few ounces of drugs that are now legal in several states. We call it a criminal justice system, but justice is increasingly hard to come by.
Fortunately, we’re beginning to see an encouraging shift — driven, in no small part, by a surprisingly transpartisan coalition of liberals and libertarian-leaning Republicans.The 2008 financial crisis forced states to confront their “addiction to incarceration,” says Vanita Gupta, the ACLU’sdeputy legal director, while historically low crime rates have created a space “for a more rational conversation about . . . what works and doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.” As reforms have caused incarceration rates to fall and the sky has not fallen with it, Americans are increasingly supportive of such measures.
States including California and New York have enacted reforms such as moving to curb solitary confinement, while Michigan has eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and implemented a statewide initiative to improve post-reintegration services. But it’s not just blue states that are rethinking criminal justice policies. Texas passed a series of reforms to reduce incarceration, and since 2007 the percentage of Texans in prison has fallen by 20 percent — compared to 5 percent nationally — and crime is at its lowest rate since 1968. In 2010, South Carolina eliminated mandatory minimums for a number of drug offenses and saw its incarceration rate drop 4 percent in a year.
At the federal level, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and tea party darling Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced legislation that would give judges greater discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders. In a landmark speech in February, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced a series of steps to reduce the prison population and add greater fairness to sentencing and rehabilitation efforts. Even support for the death penalty — still at 60 percent — is at a 40-year low, with six states abolishing capital punishment since 2006.
And last week’s horror drove President Obama to direct a Justice Department review of the death penalty’s application — a small but encouraging move.
“I think we’re witnessing a sea change in this country around criminal justice,” Gupta says. “It’s really unprecedented . . . and we need to be able to seize the moment.”
After all, a country where millions of its citizens languish behind bars cannot call itself “the land of the free.”