Follow Newsom's lead with federal moratorium on death penalty

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to close the nation’s largest death row is a defining position of moral leadership and the right thing — not just for Californians, but for the country. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE should follow his lead.

I was among many criminal justice and public safety experts asked to consult with Gov. Newsom while he weighed this decision, and he consulted with many families of murdered victims as well. During our conversations, we discussed the many problems with the death penalty — its discrimination, significant costs, potential for error and ineffectiveness as a deterrent.


I told the governor about my haunting memory of Troy Davis, a likely innocent man who was executed in Georgia in 2011.

I led the NAACP criminal justice efforts when I went with a group of justice-reform advocates to meet with Davis the day before he was scheduled to die. Despite facing his execution, he was full of life. He wanted to spend time talking to the younger members of our group — the interns — giving them hope and asking them to hold onto God. And he challenged them to keep organizing. “You have a choice,” he said. “You can either fold up your bags after tomorrow and go home, or you can stand and continue this fight.” I have never felt so devastated by the immorality of a justice system that executes people as I did on that day.

Today, there are 737 people on death row link did not work in California, and the state’s last execution took place in 2006. The application of the death penalty throughout the country also continues to shrink please link to stats verifying this. It is my hope that Gov. Newsom’s decision to remove more than a quarter of the country’s death row inmates from the risk of imminent execution may spur other political leaders to rise to courageous leadership. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden campaign says no VP pick yet after bike trail quip Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Biden edges closer to VP pick: Here's who's up and who's down MORE (D-Calif.) already has called for a federal moratorium on the death penalty. Others should join her.

The death penalty is a part of the misguided harsh-on-crime approach that led to bloated and costly prisons. It has failed to stop crime and depleted resources needed for what truly keeps a community safe.  

Gov. Newsom demonstrated the kind of courage it will take to truly overcome the era of mass incarceration and a biased, broken justice system. The billions of dollars spent on maintaining a dysfunctional capital punishment system could be invested in prevention and treatment programs needed to more effectively achieve public safety. Trauma recovery centers, restorative justice and sentencing reform that focuses on healing are investments we know can address untreated trauma and prevent the root causes of crime.    

The resources used for the death penalty also could be better used to finally bring justice to unsolved violent crimes such as murder and rape. We know that only half of the violent crimes that occur throughout America are reported to the police — and of that amount, fewer than half of those reported are solved.  

As more Americans agree on the need for community investments over perpetual punishment, priorities need to shift — addressing the cycle of mental illness and incarceration through treatment and further re-examining extreme sentencing are among the reforms needed next.  

Our jails and prisons have become mental health service providers. In my home state of California, close to a third of state inmates please link to this have a documented serious mental illness, according to the California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Yet everyone knows that our criminal justice system is not equipped to handle mental illness. We need specialized care for those experiencing mental health crises, increased capacity to get people treatment before they reach a crisis point, and resources devoted to programs that combine housing and treatment.    

A failure to do this just kicks the can down the road and makes our communities less safe. A poll commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that these services also are what most survivors of violent crime want.

For the sake of safety and justice, let’s hope this is the beginning of the end for the death penalty, once and for all.

Robert Rooks is the co-founder and vice president of Alliance for Safety and Justice. He previously was the criminal justice director for the NAACP and has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, St. Joseph’s College and Central Connecticut State University. Follow him on Twitter @RobertRooks5.