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Richard Branson: Why business leaders should advocate for the end of the death penalty

A global group of executives, spearheaded by Richard Branson, have launched the Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty.

Richard Branson: Why business leaders should advocate for the end of the death penalty
[Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images]
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The last few months have been an eventful and dramatic time for all those committed to ending the death penalty. First, former President Donald Trump’s spate of 13 federal executions during his final year in office, rightly called a “killing spree” by some, has reignited spirited debate about whether governments should be in the habit of executing people at all.

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Then, in February, lawmakers in Virginia voted overwhelmingly to abolish the state’s death penalty—a first for a Southern state (one that ranked second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out in recent decades).

In red states like Wyoming, Utah, and Ohio, ongoing repeal initiatives enjoy bipartisan support, driven also by a steady decline in the death penalty’s use. Many states that retain it haven’t imposed a death sentence in years. Death row populations are falling. And public opinion has shifted, too: Some 60% of Americans now say a life sentence without parole is a more appropriate punishment.

The death penalty can no longer hide its rotten roots: The world over, it has been an instrument of racism, oppression, and intimidation.

Global trends follow a similar pattern. While a handful of nations like China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi-Arabia continue to execute at a high and alarming rate, the United Nations counts more than 170 countries that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, including the entire European Union and most of the Western Hemisphere.

In this climate of change, business leaders are no longer remaining silent. Today, a global group of executives, supported by the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, is launching the Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty, calling on governments everywhere to end the practice, and asking their peers to join them. The declaration seeks to build a global movement of like-minded leaders committed to the cause of abolition.

I have never made a secret of my own views on the issue. I think the death penalty is inhumane and barbaric. Study after study has shown that it has failed to deter or reduce crime. It is also disproportionately used against minorities and other vulnerable and marginalized groups. Virginia Delegate Jay Jones, speaking just prior to his state’s historic vote, called it a “direct descendant of lynching.” It’s true. The death penalty can no longer hide its rotten roots: The world over, it has been an instrument of racism, oppression, and intimidation.

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From a fiscal point of view, capital punishment cases are often prohibitively expensive, especially when compared to the cost of a life sentence. Under any circumstances, it is an enormous waste of public funds—not just in the U.S., but also in other countries where large numbers of people languish on death row, only to be released a decade or more later as courts acknowledge that charges were trumped up and never warranted a death sentence in the first place.

Most important, perhaps, capital punishment is terrifyingly prone to error. In the U.S., for every nine people executed, one person has been exonerated. Since 1976, 185 innocent people have been freed from U.S. death rows. That’s far more than just a shocking statistic. It’s 185 personal stories of needless suffering, agony, and injustice. Bryan Stevenson, a brilliant champion of criminal justice and human rights, once compared this rate of error to the safety record of an airline: “Nobody would fly if for every nine planes that took off, one crashed.” That airline would have been shut down a long time ago.

The death penalty runs counter to the ideals of good governance, social cohesion, transparency, and fairness—all factors considered critical to long-term business success.

Against this backdrop, today’s business mobilization against the death penalty shouldn’t come as a surprise. The heightened attention to corporate sustainability over the last three decades has raised expectations of business as a driver of social and environmental progress. But getting your own house in order, tackling material challenges like climate or human rights issues in supply chains, is no longer enough. Increasingly, consumers, employers, and investors expect businesses and their leaders to take a stand on critical issues of our time. If business can lobby for its own good, the argument goes, it must also be a lobbyist for the greater good of humanity.

In the case of the death penalty, the business case for engagement is blindingly obvious. As a biased and inherently unjust form of punishment, it runs counter to the ideals of good governance, social cohesion, transparency, and fairness—all factors considered critical to long-term business success. Where governments hide or obscure the origin of lethal injection drugs, for instance, businesses have good reason to wonder about commitments to private contracts. Where people of color and the poor are far more likely to be caught up in a vicious and deadly cycle, business should raise concern about the rule of law and equal justice. And where precious public resources are wasted on the relentless pursuit of executions, rather than invested in schools, quality healthcare, social services, and infrastructure, business must vocally call into question government priorities.

As business leaders, we must strive to hold up our end of a social contract that entrusts us with great leverage to grow and succeed. That means we must use our voices and our platforms to advance human rights and social justice. We must never be bystanders in the face of injustice. It’s time to end the death penalty for good.

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Sir Richard Branson is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the founder of the Virgin Group.

To learn more about the Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty, visit businessagainstdeathpenalty.org.