Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Narrowing the Perception Gap

Perhaps the largest obstacle to the abolition of the death penalty in Pennsylvania is a perception gap which permeates deep into our society, influencing people of all ages and walks of life. This gap is highly detrimental, impeding our knowledge of the truth about our judicial system, and denying our society the right to equal justice and representation. The fact that Pennsylvania has executed only three people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 has allowed the issue of capital punishment to slip from the public’s mind. Yet still the death penalty remains, threatening to execute 223 human beings in Pennsylvania alone. The money spent on maintaining this costly form of punishment serves to merely perpetuate the need for arduous and sluggish appeals, siphoning money which could be better allocated towards fixing our broken criminal justice system. Yet the public does not see this side of the story. The true economic costs of executing a human, the racial imbalances of the death row population, and the ineffective representation given to many death row inmates is rarely printed on any campaign pamphlet or mentioned on the floor of the state legislature. For many, the death penalty is an unquestionable foundation of our judicial system, if only as a result of historical precedent. However, if the true costs of the death penalty were widely known and distributed, this highly detrimental perception gap would close. The universality of the issue would be widely recognized; that this is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a common sense issue.
In this fast-paced and highly interconnected world, the ability to close the perception gap is easier and more attainable than ever before. In short, there is no longer an excuse for not being ‘in the loop’. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the many thousands plugging away in the blogosphere provide an exciting and extremely powerful resource to mobilize and galvanize our supporters, as well as gain new advocates. An informal, five question survey I created and distributed via Facebook to 100 of my friends was highly informative. Of the respondents—14% of which were under 18, and 85% of which were 18-35—33% did not even know that Pennsylvania has the death penalty. Also, 46.5% believed that there were only 0-100 people on death row, despite the fact that over 220 currently reside there. Furthermore, the respondents were evenly distributed when asked how many people they thought had been executed in Pennsylvania since 1976, with 24.5% answering ‘0-10’, 24.5% answering ‘10-50’, 30.6% answering ‘50-100’, and 22.4% answering ‘over 100’. From even this small sample, it is obvious that perceptions of the death penalty (in this case, amongst young people) are inaccurate, and new media and social networking websites represent a vital opportunity to expand our reach to the public. Vast amounts of information can be distributed to countless constituencies and individuals in the blink of an eye. This includes legislators. If we can prove to our lawmakers that we not only understand the issue at hand, but have a sizable and active following, we can enact an instant but lasting impact on the legislative landscape of Pennsylvania. Before any of this can happen, however, we must work tirelessly to close this destructive and debilitating perception gap, and to tear down the curtain shielding the issue of capital punishment from the public’s eyes. We must tweet, vlog, blog, and wall-post this issue to our friends, co-workers, and most importantly: our legislators. Despite all the political and economic turmoil of our modern lives, we have proven just how interconnected we can be as a society. Let us use this rapidly growing unity gain a twenty-first century awareness of an age-old problem.

Posted by Aaron Spangler, PADP Intern, June 16, 2010

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