Wednesday, January 16, 2008

NCADP 2008: (Co) Abolitionist of the year, part two

Today, a couple of hours before we board the flight to San Jose, we bring you the latest installment in the series of NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees. Today we are recognizing Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

Please continue to check back in as we will honor different individuals every day leading up to Saturday.

Natasha Minsker, Abolitionist of the Year

Like many in the anti-death penalty community, Natasha Minsker is an attorney whose career has traversed a bridge between public defender work and abolition work. The job title she holds today – Death Penalty Policy Director for the ACLU of Northern California – is a natural progression from the years she spent in the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, doing everything from basic research to representing clients in all sorts of cases – misdemeanor, felony and juvenile.

While a student at Stanford Law School, Minsker first landed a job in the public defender’s office. “The very first day, they took us to watch the penalty phase of a death penalty trial,” Minsker recalls. “The woman who raised the defendant was on the stand and the defense lawyer was asking her how she would feel if the State of California executed the defendant, someone she considered her son.

“I was shocked,” Minsker continues. “I could not believe that, in our legal system, twelve random people would be asked to judge whether another human being deserves to continue living. How would they ever be able to make such a decision? I felt very immediately and profoundly that the death penalty was a blight on our legal system and that it had to do.”

The ACLU of Northern California, with more than 55,000 members, is the nation’s largest ACLU affiliate. And given the enormity of California and the size of its death row, Minsker knows she has her work cut out for her. She responds to California’s unique situation by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach – working toward abolition of the death penalty while at the same time working on reforms and other measures that would lower the rate of capital sentencing.

“There’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to be learned from the California experience,” Minsker explains. “The ‘bad’ lesson is that slowing down the process and making the death penalty incredibly costly does not necessarily translate into public opposition to the death penalty. We have the most dysfunctional death penalty in the country, but that is not enough to convince people it is time to get rid of it. We have much more work to do to translate frustration into opposition. Hopefully, the ‘good’ lesson is that there are effective strategies for reducing use of the death penalty and moving us closer toward abolition that can be implemented locally, in any state, regardless of the political climate in the legislature.”

Minsker is also challenged by the sheer size and cultural divide that permeates California – a divide that increasingly is not defined by “northern” and “southern” California but rather by inland areas and coastal areas. “One of our greatest challenges is the incredible size of the state,” Minsker says. “We do not have the resources to work effectively in the entire state and we have much work still to do even among groups that should be open to our point of view. Thus, we are focused on building greater support in regions that are most likely to be receptive. The size of the state and the reality of referendum politics in California force us to be creative. We cannot do things the way other states do – we have to find our own ‘California’ version of abolition.”

Minsker lives in Oakland and enjoys doing yoga to stay sane and hiking with her partner David.

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