Dr. Michelle Brown is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (2009), Empathy and Punishment (2012) as well as other books and articles in the field of critical criminology.
Dr. Brown writes:
As a criminologist, I have spent a lot of time examining the inescapable problems of capital punishment, ranging from its failure to deter crime to problems of racial disparity and inadequate due process. One of the more powerful emotional claims for capital punishment has been that executions are necessary for victims and their loved ones to achieve closure. In fact, an emergent wave of social science research on the families of victims in capital cases points instead to their long-term social, psychological, and spiritual needs. As it turns out, experiences of isolation, alienation, invisibility, grief, and powerlessness are shared among families of the victim and the condemned. In the world of capital punishment, victims, perpetrators, and their loved ones bleed together.
Such work encourages us to move beyond the myth of closure often presented in the media and law, one where criminal justice procedure – prosecution, conviction, and punishment – results in “closure” with victims then expected to “move on.” Rather, families talk instead of closure as a life-long, ongoing process – a work of memory – with complex needs, a process that capital punishment often exacerbates in its one-off assumptions of finality. Often overlooked in capital punishment debates yet central to the acknowledgment of victims is the role of the community in responding to these needs, an obligation central to restorative and transformative justice. Communities can do a better job of addressing the pain, grief, and life-long needs of others than simply pursuing death.
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