And now for something different... an inspiring Catholic nun

I attended an interesting program at Stanford's Aurora Forum last week. It featured Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun most known for authoring the book Dead Man Walking, and Lawrence Marshall, law professor at Stanford and director of the Stanford Legal Clinics. They were discussing the death penalty in the US. My work only rarely crosses over into criminal law issues, and certainly does not involve death penalty issues, so the talk was a great opportunity for me to think about other legal issues that put into perspective some of the work I do. A number of points stuck out to me during the talk that I don't want to forget.First, there are over 2.1 million people held in US prisons today. That's a huge number and it makes me wonder why we spend so much money on a war and on legally killing people through the death penalty instead of spending that money on intervention programs to keep people out of jail in the first place?

Second, Sister Prejean said that every year, the population of Seattle is released from prison. That's at least 569,000 people released from prison each year, with little or no rehabilitation or training to get them back on their feet and in many cases no realistic chance to steer clear from future criminal conduct.

Third, Sister Prejean said that Catholic support for the death penalty is below 50% for the first time ever. I think she used the term "principaled opposition" which is the Vatican's new approach to death penalty. Having been raised Catholic, though not practicing since I left for college, I was pleased to hear that there appears to be some progress in that department. (Now, if they could only work on becoming pro-choice... but I digress.)

Fourth, when I think of death penalty states, I think of Florida, Mississippi and Texas. But Professor Marshall turned that upside down. Evidently, the bible belt is not the only death penalty-happy region in the US. In California there are 3 scheduled executions in the next 3 months and California has 1/5th of the US's death row inmates!!! That shocked me! There is a pending study of injustice surrounding the administration of the death penalty in California, which may impact a potential moratorium on carrying out death sentences while the legislature further studies the issue. Learn more here.

Lastly, in response to an audience question about practicalities of the costs of keeping inmates on death row vs. killing them -- and I think the questioner was saying that the argument loses moral underpinnings when we focus on things like the budget -- Sister Prejean received a burst of applause from the audience when she said "OK. Let's talk morals. One of the most moral documents that exists is the budget." I loved that.

Sister Prejean's new book, Death of Innocents looks like it will be equally compellilng.

(The program was taped by KQED, so I believe it will air on public radio/television sometime soon. I'll update if/when I learn more.)

{Update: This lecture by Professor Marshall adapted from an article he published in 2003, provides further information about the Innocents Revolution.}

{UPDATE: transcript of the talk is available at this link. Audio is available from a link on this page. I think you need Real Player for it to work.}

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