Black leaders and lawmakers hailed the new Illinois death penalty ban and expressed hope it would be a major step toward a fairer criminal justice system in the state.
“The whole system is really stacked,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said after Gov. Pat Quinn signed the ban into law two weeks ago. “You look at the percentages of blacks in prison, on death row and [even] traffic tickets and it’s obvious that race is clearly a strong factor in the criminal justice process. I’m just glad that the governor went and signed it into law.”
In a private ceremony with a handful of lawmakers and supporters on hand, of Gov. Quinn made Illinois the 16th state to abolish capital punishment on March 2. He also commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life in prison without parole. Four of those inmates are black, two are Hispanic, and nine are non-Hispanic white.
In the state’s history, only 20 inmates have been exonerated of capital punishment, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Of that number, 14 were African-American.
“In the imperfection of our system we run the risk too many times of killing people who are innocent, and that is a terrible risk for the state to take,” Jackson said. “There are people who are obsessed with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and killing the person accused of killing [becomes] a solution.”
State Rep. Karen Yarbrough (7th) agreed that race plays a factor in sentencing.
“If you were African-American or Hispanic, you were more likely to get the death penalty than if you were a Caucasian. It’s arbitrary and capricious,” she said. “If you were poor and a person of color, you were more apt to get the death penalty and not have proper representation.”
Nationally, the NAACP reported that as of January 2010, blacks made up 41 percent of death row inmates; whites represented 44 percent and Hispanics 12 percent. The Illinois Department of Corrections reported that in 2009 blacks comprised 58 percent of the state prison population. Whites, meanwhile, made up 28 percent and Hispanics 13 percent.
Jackson, a longtime supporter of the abolition bill and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, described the bill as a small step to ending a tangled web of systematic racism within the state’s legal system. Jackson said that blacks were often sentenced to harsher punishments for non-violent and low-level crimes.
According to a recent study by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, blacks in Cook County were five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession than whites.
Yarbrough and state Sen. Kwame Raoul (13th)-both sponsors of the bill-were among a handful of leaders and lawmakers present at the signing ceremony. The two differed slightly on it’s potential to end racism within the state’s justice system.
“While this may be the most historic thing I’ve done and may do, the struggle continues,” Raoul said. “I think part of the danger of the passage of the bill is that the removal of the [death] penalty will leave some to believe that there is no longer a need to reform the criminal justice.”
Yarbrough was more optimistic, insisting that the bill brings the state one step closer to ending systematic racism.
“I know that we’re on the right side of history,” she said.