Death penalty is killing many vulnerable citizens

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Bonnie Douglas Guest Opinion

As Ohio conducted its first execution in more than three and a half years, Ronald Phillips, who was convicted of the murder of Sheila Marie Evans, asked his victim’s family for forgiveness.

In prison, Phillips discovered the power of God’s grace and reconciliation and helped to share that gift with others as an unofficial death row chaplain.

This inspiring transformation and subsequent execution of Ronald Phillips caused me to ask myself a question: Who exactly are we executing in this country?

The sad reality of capital punishment in the United States is that it doesn’t target “the worst of the worst.” Rather, it preys upon those who are neglected, abused, young, intellectually disabled, and mentally ill. People who receive the death penalty in the U.S. are some of our most vulnerable citizens. Phillips was just 19 years old when he committed his crime and he had suffered horrible sexual abuse as a child. It is sad but not surprising that as he grew up — without any intervention or mental health counseling — the abused became the abuser. But by age 43, after 24 years in prison, he had become a different person.

As a resident of Idaho, I am especially concerned for those who suffer from severe mental illness and have no access to treatment or help. Idaho has only four mental health crisis centers for the entire state, along with two over-populated state hospitals; as a result, our jails and prisons have become Idaho’s main mental health provider. Nearly one third of all inmates in Idaho need mental health care.

As an active member of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene, I know that my Catholic faith holds at its center a belief that each human life is sacred because each person is created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity and worth cannot be diminished by any conditions, even if a person commits a terrible crime. This understanding of human dignity demands that Catholics and all people of faith and conscience especially care for the poor and vulnerable, especially those with mental illness. We hold sacred a deep belief in the possibility of redemption for all persons.

This special care demands we address the reasons people commit crimes in the first place. For people with severe mental illness, those reasons are commonly a lack of proper treatment. Rather than helping these men and women to receive the treatment they need to thrive, we too often wait for something bad to happen and punish them by incarceration or even death.

But here in Idaho, there is a growing movement to rectify this. The Idaho Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exemption (IASMIE) seeks to exempt those suffering from serious mental illness at the time of their crimes from receiving the death penalty.

This coalition of mental health providers, faith leaders, and social justice organizations wants to ensure that a vulnerable group of people is protected from capital punishment, and that resources are redirected into mental health services. I could not agree more.

We should allow God’s grace to work through us as we serve the marginalized in our midst. Jesus was quite clear: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Idahoans with mental health problems should not be subjected to capital punishment; they should be held accountable and given treatment. We can’t keep society safe and embrace a culture of life with resorting to more killing. It’s time to exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.

• • •

Bonnie Douglas is member of IASMIE and active parishioner at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene.

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