Death penalty: Here's how business could play a crucial role in abolition
9/4/19 - Celia Ouellette, Director of the Responsible Business Initiative on the Death Penalty
Business must use its voice and power to help end this medieval practice, writes Celia Ouellette.
In the mid-1930s, a British millionaire businesswoman and entrepreneur, Violet Van Der Elst, chose to use her voice to advance a critical human rights issue: the abolition of the death penalty.
She hired planes to trail banners calling for abolition on execution days, was regularly seen protesting outside courtrooms and prisons, and hired men wearing sandwich boards as part of her vigorous efforts to end capital punishment. Closer to our own time, entrepreneur and businessman Richard Branson has taken on a similar mission: blogging, writing, creating short films and using his voice to speak out against the death penalty.
So why do these two individuals hold such an important position among the millions of campaigners against the death penalty? Because their voices are so loud. Both Ms Van Der Elst and Mr Branson occupy places of privilege in society, and for both there was (and is) an understanding that with that privilege comes a responsibility to use their voices as a force for good.
The death penalty is widely condemned as a human rights violation, and a bleak and archaic form of punishment. As society moves towards more sophisticated and restorative criminal justice systems, the death penalty stands out as a relic of the past. In the words of Governor Gavin Newsom, when he halted the death penalty in California last month: “If you rape, we don’t rape. And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.”
Beyond moral objections to capital punishment, its practical implementation is fraught with problems. We have executed innocent people. One recent study conservatively estimated only around half of the innocent people on America’s death row are freed. Some states have given posthumous pardons in acknowledgement of their fatal mistakes. Moreover, the death penalty is racist in its application.
In the US, the Black death row population is nearly three times the general population. And capital punishment disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable in society. In 2017, 20 out of 23 people executed in America had significant evidence of mental illness, evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, serious childhood trauma, or, they were under the age of 21 at the time of the offence.
Responsible businesses wanting to adopt comprehensive human rights policies that demonstrate a nuanced response to issues of proven concern to shareholders and customers, such as racism, poverty and mental health, need to take notice of the death penalty.
Responsible businesses should also care about their communities. The death penalty does not make communities safer. Nor does it address root causes of crime. Statistics from the US show that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without. The punishment is also cripplingly expensive: one recent study placed the cost of operating the death penalty at $272 million per execution. A recent legislative effort to end the death penalty in Wyoming stated that doing so would immediately free up a million dollars annually in the state’s budget.
What was so incredible about this sum is this: Wyoming has no one on death row and no pending death penalty cases. One million dollars was the amount that could be returned to the community simply by not having the mechanism in place. Any good business person knows this system makes no sense, and there is a growing international movement of businesses and governments discussing abolition of the death penalty in the context of trade and investment.
In February the EU Trade Commissioner joined various businesses to speak about trade and private sector engagement on abolition, at an event in Brussels attended by around 1,500 delegates from governments, the private sector and NGOs.
Business voices are a critical tool for abolition. Globally, support for the death penalty is declining. Meanwhile, competition for investment is fierce. Put simply, governments and the public at large care more about job creation and a healthy economy than a system of capital punishment. Therefore, at a time when many states are teetering on the brink of abolition, the voices of business leaders have a huge role to play in shaping public debate about whether to keep or end the death penalty.
Businesses looking to open plants, facilities, headquarters or other operations have considerable leverage in terms of where they choose to invest and what they choose to discuss with potential partners and host-states. Using their voices at this time can have an impact proportionally greater than any other part of the abolition campaign.
Many businesses have embraced this position of responsibility, and in the past decade there has been something of a moral revolution in capitalism, with concepts such as CEO activism, impact investing, B-Corps, venture philanthropy and socially responsible investment becoming mainstream.
There is a growing number of businesses that don’t believe stating their values is “brave”, but rather simply “the right thing to do”. This should extend to taking a position on the death penalty.
Celia Ouellette is Director of the Responsible Business Initiative on the Death Penalty, whose toolkit for business is available here.