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Abolish the Death Penalty, Invest in Public Safety

In his essay for Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, Martin O’Malley writes that we should eliminate the death penalty, and invest the dollars saved back into law enforcement.

April 28, 2015

Today, there is a growing enlightenment in the world community regarding the value of capital punishment. The majority of public executions now take place in just seven countries: Iran, Iraq, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States of America.

Our home is one of the last refuges of the death penalty.

Our nation was not founded on fear, or on revenge, or on retribution. Freedom, justice, equal rights before the law, and a fierce belief in the dignity of every human being — these are the foundational notions of what it means to be American. Our values are our treasures, and the death penalty is incompatible with them.

Nevertheless, advocates of the death penalty will argue that the death penalty is firmly rooted in our legal tradition, extending to its roots in England. But just as our notions on equality and civil liberties have rightfully changed since the early days of the republic, it is time to reconsider the place of the death penalty in our criminal justice system — and whether we should, as a nation, replace the death penalty with life without parole.

As we weigh this decision, there are several questions, to my mind, that we must address: First, does the death penalty work? Second, is the death penalty an effective use of limited taxpayer dollars? And finally, is the death penalty consistent with our values?

The answer to each, I believe, is an emphatic no.

The death penalty does not advance public safety. It has proved countless times to be an ineffective deterrent to violent crime. In fact, the average homicide rate in states with the death penalty is 4.4 per 100,000 people. In states without it, the rate is 3.4 per 100,000 people.

Just consider the example of Baltimore City. When I decided to run for Mayor in 1999, my city had become the most violent, most addicted, most abandoned city in America. I was very close to and indelibly moved by, the pain, suffering, and tragedy. I was witness to horrendous crimes — violent crimes, murderous crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against children. And having the death penalty on the books did absolutely nothing to stem the growth of the city’s crime and despair.

But the city government and its citizens decided to act. With concerted effort, we drove down violent crime by 42 percent in Baltimore. Not because of the existence of the death penalty, not because of great use of the death penalty, but because we employed new strategies to work to reduce violence. We actively combated crime. We focused on the collection of timely, accurate information that could be shared by all. We focused on direct and rapid deployment of resources to where they would do the most good. We focused on solving the crimes the death penalty did not deter, on more effective prosecutions, and on better and more widely available drug treatment. All these efforts worked. And together with law enforcement, we — not the death penalty — drove down violent crime and homicide to three-decade lows.

The death penalty is also costly and ineffective governance. Despite being one of our weakest weapons in combating crime, it is enormously expensive: Sentencing a prisoner to death costs $400,000 more than sentencing one to life in prison. Given that 56 people have been sentenced to death in Maryland since 1978, our state has spent about $22.4 million more than it would have to imprison those people for the remainder of their lives.

Moreover, the $22.4 million we spent in Maryland could have paid for 500 additional police officers or provided drug treatment for 10,000 of our addicted neighbors. Every dollar we throw at maintaining an ineffective death penalty is a dollar we are not investing in the strategies, like those we followed in Baltimore, that actually work to save lives. Every dollar spent maintaining an antiquated system is a dollar deferred from creating a stronger, safer America.

Finally, the death penalty is not just. There are discrepancies in how we administer the death penalty on the basis of race. Defendants accused of murdering white victims are significantly more likely to face a death sentence than those accused of killing non-white victims. Although African Americans represent 43 percent of all death row inmates, they make up only 13 percent of the population at large. And a minority defendant is three times more likely to receive the death penalty than is a white defendant.

Nor can we be certain that any defendant is being rightly convicted, for the death penalty is tragically subject to human error. It is unconscionable that an innocent person can be put to death by their own government — and yet, each year from 2000 to 2011, an average of five death row inmates was exonerated nationwide. And in Maryland, between 1995 and 2007, our state’s reversal rate for the death penalty was 80 percent.

The death penalty is simply inconsistent with the principles of our nation. If the death penalty as applied is inherently unjust, costly, and lacks a deterrent value, we are left to consider whether the value to society of partial retribution outweighs the cost of maintaining capital punishment. I believe that it does not. The damage done to the concept of human dignity by our conscious communal use of the death penalty is far greater than the benefit of a justly drawn retribution.

Our laws must be above the human temptation for revenge. They must not be an instrument for us to lash out in pain and anger. This will inevitably leave us with only bitterness and resentment, fraying the ties between each of us. Rather, our laws aim to strengthen those ties by using our resources to strengthen our communities and find innovative solutions to fight violent crime. Far more good will come by ending violence and saving thousands of lives, than by ending the life of one person who contributed to violence.

For these reasons, in Maryland we replaced the death penalty with the punishment of life without parole. In 2013, Maryland became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to repeal capital punishment. The bill was supported by a broad coalition of victims’ families, communities of color, law enforcement officials, faith groups, and civil rights leaders. I was proud to sign that bill. And, in December 2014, after speaking with the families of victims, I decided to commute the sentences of Maryland’s four remaining death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole as one of my final acts as governor.

Across the nation, the tide is turning. Public support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in 40 years. In 2014, 72 people were sentenced to death, compared to about 300 per year in the mid-1990s. The number of states without capital punishment now totals 18, and Delaware, New Hampshire, and Kansas are also weighing repeal. As momentum continues to shift toward repeal in state after state, there is real hope that America will soon join the rest of the free world in abolishing the death penalty once and for all.

In tough times, we must make smarter, more principled decisions. The death penalty is expensive, ineffective, and wasteful as a matter of public policy. It is unjust as historically applied. And it has no place in a principled 21st century nation. Instead we will look now for more creative, direct, and powerful tools to fight crime and ensure that each American remains safe. All of our leaders need to be held accountable to that standard.

Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.