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Hispanic Evangelicals Call for Change in Capital Punishment

Indubitably, there is a growing consensus that our criminal justice system, notwithstanding its strengths and virtues, needs improvement. However, one area of sentencing which lags behind in public opinion is capital punishment.
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In recent years there has been a resurging ground-swell around criminal justice reform. This resurgence has the broadest coalition of support I can remember. Signs abound that these are not just the usual suspects. Evangelical leaders are joining conversations with people like Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty and Equal Justice USA to find a way forward that improves our criminal justice in a way that is much more just and equitable.

In November 2013, I was part of a group of 27 evangelical Christians from across the United States who called for fair sentencing hearings in a case in Texas. Republicans and Democrats from Rand Paul to Cory Booker are calling for a closer look at the inequities within the criminal justice system, particularly around sentencing practices and the levels of mass incarceration. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition has joined the bi-partisan grass-roots movement to support the Smarter Sentencing Act. There is movement a-foot.

Indubitably, there is a growing consensus that our criminal justice system, notwithstanding its strengths and virtues, needs improvement. However, one area of sentencing which lags behind in public opinion is capital punishment. A recent poll held by the Huffington Post after the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma stated that 62 percent of Americans still favor the death penalty. The United States is one of several countries together with Cuba, Uganda, Libya and Egypt that still allow for the death penalty. The question is, "Why?," and "Why do I as a Hispanic Evangelical leader believe we need to renew our national conversation around this life issue?"

I understand the passion around this issue. Heinous crimes like murder merit a response from governments empowered to defend its citizenry. Moreover, the unimaginable emotional and psychology impact of losing a loved-one to murder rightfully elicits are deepest sense of sorrow, loss and cries for justice. I too have lost family members, parishioners and neighbors to violent crimes. Murders are a genuine tragedy in any community and Latino communities have more than their share. There are no easy responses. In addition, I recognize that reasonable can disagree on what meets the standards of just punishment in a democracy. The issue of capital punishment, like all issues of life and death, should be entered in with sensitivity and sobriety. This week The Constitution Project will release their report on the administration of capital punishment. As an evangelical leader intimately involved in this conversation I look forward to reading their final recommendations closely. In expectations of this report I will share my reflections as a Hispanic evangelical leader. Admittedly, Latino evangelicals are not a monolith.

To be clear, I do think a democratic government does have the authority and right to sentence criminals for crimes in society. I also have seen how imperfect systems disproportionately and negatively impact people based on race, color and economics. So then the query remains, "How to balance between justice and equality?" My conviction is that all authority, particularly civil authority, must be examined by what St. Augustine's called "the highest good." What are we as a society practicing and what values are we highlighting? Moreover, how do our laws and practices impact the whole of society. I have privately and publicly opposed the death penalty on both theological and social grounds (a longer discussion I have had in more spacious forums than blogs). Not least of which is that I believe that the system is too broken to ensure that innocent persons are not executed. I have many colleagues who are proponents of the death penalty. Nevertheless, I think there are some issues that both proponents and opponents of the death penalty agree that need immediate redress. The credibility of our criminal justice system demands that we respond.

A major concern Hispanic evangelicals have with the death penalty is that it is part of what in Christian theology we call a "fallen system." All systems are imperfect and fallen. In the case of the ultimate penalty, errors in judgment cannot be corrected. For example, since 1973, the year I was born, over 140 people in the US have been released from death row because of evidence of their innocence. Some of them served decades in prison and on death row for a crime they did not commit. Citizens who lose not just their freedom but their life over wrongful conviction have no recourse post-mortem. That fact alone elicits deep consternation in our communities. Another major concern is the marked sentencing inequalities across race and economics highlighted by the US Sentencing Commission report last year. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty who cherish "equal protection under the law" can agree that this should raise profound concern. The lingering and deleterious effects of racial bias or economic inequity are nowhere more consequential than when the state executes one of its citizens. This moral conundrum cannot be obviated or ignored.

In addition, the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett has once again raised the concern around capital punishment. The refusal by some pharmaceutical companies to sell cocktails of lethal injections has led to torturous executions. For some time, the US has appropriately outlawed "cruel and unusual punishment" and this latest execution has resurfaced moral outrage, even among proponents, around botched executions.

The close to 8 million Hispanic evangelicals who are deeply committed to a system of justice that ensures equal treatment for all are asking for a genuine transformation in this system. As the national dialogue around capital punishment continues to take shape our contribution is one framed out of our commitment to equality, justice and above all a Scriptural imperative to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God." This commitment is what compels us to call for a genuine transformation of the imperfect capital punishment system that we have before us.

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