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The Crucial Question We Should Be Asking About The Death Penalty

It's not about, "Does this person deserve to die?" says attorney Bryan Stevenson.

For most of his law career, attorney Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his practice to working with those who most of society has already condemned: convicts on death row. The death penalty is a provocative and controversial topic, but in Stevenson's line of work, he has come to the clear conclusion that we should abolish these executions -- and the reason why has nothing to do with whether or not people deserve to die for their crimes.

As Stevenson tells Oprah in an interview for "SuperSoul Sunday," there's no disputing that people can commit horrific crimes. They can, they do, and they deserve to face consequences. However, Stevenson argues that this consequence should never be death. It all comes down to one important question.

"The question of the death penalty isn't, 'Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?'," Stevenson says. "I think the threshold question is, 'Do we deserve to kill?'"

The justice system answers "yes" to that latter question, but Stevenson also says that this system is profoundly broken, not just in regards to the death penalty, but in how it treats the rich versus the poor who become entangled in its web.

"We have a system of justice that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent," Stevenson says. "Wealth --not culpability -- shapes outcomes."

What this broken system leads to, the attorney continues, is an overflow of innocent people behind bars.

"We went from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in 1972 to 2.3 million people today. That means we've never had more innocent people in jails and prisons than we have right now," Stevenson asserts. "We've had 154 people who were sentenced to death get exonerated, proved innocent. That means for every nine people we've executed in this country, one innocent person has been proved innocent. It's a shocking rate of error."

Those who are more likely to become innocent victims in the mess of legal complexities and disadvantages, he adds, aren't just those who lack financial means. They're also people of color.

"Our death penalty is very racially skewed," Stevenson says. "You're dramatically more likely to get it if the victim is white than if the victim is black; and if the defendant is black and the victim is white, then it's even [a] much greater chance of getting the death penalty.

"It's a way in which we actually create a world where people can legitimately say black lives don't matter," he continues. "Because we don't protect people who are poor and we don't protect people of color in the same way we protect other people."

In Stevenson's mind, abolishing the death penalty is a more compassionate step in the right direction for the future -- a step away from the atrocities of our collective past.

"It would liberate us from some of the worst parts of our history," he says. "You can't be in counties and communities where people have been lynched and threatened and menaced and terrorized, and then have a person of color taken to death row."

Instead, Stevenson points to other ways of handling dangerous criminals who never again deserve to set foot in society.

"We have the capacity to incarcerate people for a really long time," he says. "It really isn't about what people deserve; it's about us."

"SuperSoul Sunday" airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET on OWN.

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