I often hear the usual justifications for ending capital punishment. Deterrence is a fallacy. Innocents and the mentally ill are killed off all the time. Racial inequality is rampant in sentencing. The detrimental impact on the executioners is immeasurable. Closure is rarely if ever achieved for victims’ families. “Eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” (M. Gandhi)  People are not evil, their actions are evil. The list continues…

While I agree with each of the above wholeheartedly, I believe that they all dance around the primary reason for the abolition issue of our time: Compassion. As Americans who elect politicians who make laws that determine judicial action, we – just as much, if not more so than any of them – are the engines of the death penalty. We are the executioners, not the state, not the federal government. We are responsible for determining the level of compassion we have on those individuals – and we are ultimately the arbiters of whether our society should separate a person’s humanity and right to life from what they have done, no matter how senseless and horrifying.

As I see it, it comes down to this: do we believe that those among us who have committed the most heinous crimes, who have gruesomely deprived others of the right to life – and who are absolutely guilty of their crimes without an iota of doubt – have therefore lost the right to live in our eyes?

For me, the answer is an unequivocal “No.” I serve as Jewish clergy and as Jewish Chaplain in prisons and currently in a forensic psychiatric hospital where many individuals with whom I work would have likely faced capital charges for their crimes in other states, despite their mental capacity – think of Jerome Bowden in past years, Warren Lee this month in Georgia, and John Ferguson, who is slated for death in Florida on Aug. 5. The individuals with whom I work are human beings, many of whom have committed atrocious murders as a result of their illness…or sometimes not as directly connected to their illness. With treatment, medication and proper attention, a good number of these individuals realize their plight and turn their lives around, even if those lives will be spent within an institution. (The average stay at my hospital is eight years.) Does this always, happen? Absolutely not. But it does happen more and more as our treatment for mental illness improves and our knowledge of the human mind expands. All the while, we have the opportunity as a society to humanely work with them and learn from them more about what reasons – nature, nurture, both, or other – led them to commit their crimes. What better way than this to do the most we can to ensure that their actions are less likely to be committed again, by them or by anyone else?

As for prisons, in my experience, I do not feel that prison has any rehabilitative value in the aggregate for individuals in custody. Some opportunities do exist in certain prisons to help individuals, and some people do leave prison better off than when they entered. Yet, the damaging, often cruel, and not unusual abuse and neglect that prisoners experience far outweighs any benefits they may provide, in my mind. I would be lying if I said I had any bright ideas for what might replace “correctional” institutions. When we figure out something better, I’ll be first in line to abolish prisons.

The term “Never Again” is often employed in my circles – and in my immediate family’s experience – in reference to the Holocaust: remembering it, studying it, preventing it from repeating itself. I strongly feel the same applies to taking a life. Killing someone who killed another makes us no different from the killer him/herself. Every single time my country executes someone, no matter the reason, as a Jewish American citizen who chooses to remain in this country, I feel that I personally am breaking my promise to my family and to my people. What keeps me here is the hope that through our perseveration and education we can reach a point where enough American citizens feel the same way that we amend the Constitution to make all executions, civilian and military, a shameful relic of our past, like slavery before it, among other things. May it happen soon in our day.

– Cantor Michael Zoosman