After a series of votes through the Maryland House and Senate, SB 276 was passed through the Maryland House of Delegates on March 15, 2013, to repeal the state’s death penalty and replace it with life without parole. It is widely accepted that Governor Martin O’Malley will also add his signature to officially sign it into law, making Maryland the 18th state to abolish capital punishment in the United States.
Maryland’s move to abolition is one more step toward our country’s move toward modernity. Once SB 276 officially passes in Maryland, it will be the sixth state in six years to repeal the death penalty, along with Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey. The trend of abolition throughout the country is promising, although the state of our nation’s criminal justice system and our death penalty system in general are troubling, at best. The U.S. has only five percent of the world’s population, yet has over 25% of the world’s prison population, making it the largest jailer in the world. 724 people per 100,000 are imprisoned in the U.S. By comparison, Russia, with the second largest prison population in the world, has a rate of 581 people imprisoned per 100,000. To put it in even more frightening terms, according to the BBC, half of the prison population of the world (about nine million) are held in the U.S., China, and Russia, clearly not the best of bedfellows.
Our system of capital punishment is just as frightening. To start, it is rife with racism and classism. The ACLU reports that since the death penalty was revived in the 1970s, “about half of those on death row at any given time have been black.” What’s more, the victim’s race plays a role in whether a capital sentence is sought. “Although approximately 49% of all homicide victims are white, 77% of capital homicide cases since 1976 have involved a white victim.” A study done in Maryland on its death penalty system found that a black offender who killed a white victim faced a greater risk of receiving a death sentence than if the victim was black. The study reports, “For example, in December of 2002 all thirteen men on Maryland’s death row were sentenced to death for killing whites and in eight of these thirteen (62%) the offender was black.”
Equally disturbing, capital cases are also largely dependent on the socio-economic status of the defendant. The ACLU states that about 90% of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried. In Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia Inquirer study that examined the past three decades of death penalty appeals in PA found that 125 out of 391 capital cases, nearly one-third, have been reversed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 due, for the most part, to mistakes made by defense lawyers that deprived the defendant of a fair trial. The study found that some appellate lawyers missed filing deadlines and sometimes failed to even appear in court for hearings. The problem often stems from the fact that PA defense lawyers are paid a paltry fee and given little time or resources to make their case. As a result, few lawyers are willing to take these capital cases. So while the government grants people a constitutional right to an attorney, this right is effectively moot if no qualified attorneys are willing to take these cases; cases where a defendant’s life and death are in the balance.
And it is arbitrary, too. It is shocking to most to hear that whether or not the death penalty is sought or imposed depends more on the region where the crime was committed than it does on the actual crime itself. According to Amnesty International, since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, 82% of all executions have taken place in the South while the Northeast accounts for less than 1% of all executions, even though his does not reflect data on crime. Furthermore, one would expect that while executions may vary from state-to-state, within each state the data should be relatively consistent. However, data has shown that this is not the case in most states. A study by Frank R. Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina in 2010 found that often times states have death sentences heavily concentrated in one region, depending on the political leanings of prosecutors, among other things. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in Ohio, for example, 1/4th of all death row inmates are from Hamilton County, even though the county accounts for only 9% of the state’s murders. And in New York as well, capital cases are overwhelmingly concentrated in the upstate counties, approximately 61%, even though the counties account for only 19% of homicides in the state.
All moral arguments aside, the death penalty is simply draining our funds and resources. The costs of incarceration for a death row prisoner are significantly higher than comparable cases resulting in life without parole. A study in Maryland found that costs for capital trials were approximately 42% more than costs for non-death sentence cases. In that state alone, it was revealed that each of the state’s five executions since the death penalty was reenacted cost taxpayers $37.2 million. In Florida, which has one of the highest death row populations, estimates say that each execution costs about $3.2 million, or about six times a life-imprisonment sentence.
And taken from a global perspective, the death penalty is simply not a system that the United States should desire to align itself with. An Amnesty International report documented capital punishment and executions worldwide and found that more than two-thirds of the countries of the world have either formally abolished the death penalty or have not executed anyone in the past decade. Of the countries that still have and use the death penalty, the U.S. ranks fifth in the world for number of executions after China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen.
As we applaud Maryland for finally repealing the draconian system of capital punishment in the state, we should push the remaining 32 states to do likewise, Delaware is the next likely state to push for abolition with SB 19. Senator Hank Sanders of Alabama is also preparing to introduce a bill this year, as well as Kentucky Representative Carl Rollins, Senator Claire Levy of Colorado, New Hampshire Governor Margaret Hassan, and Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon. Capital punishment is not only detestable on a moral level; it is proven to be largely ineffective as a deterrent and is clearly racially and socio-economically imbalanced. It is time we join the rest of the modern world and abolish this archaic and grievous system of injustice.
Also published on CounterPunch, Raging Chicken Press, and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.