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March 20, 2007

Death penalty hanging by a thread

Depending on the metric you choose, Baltimore can be seen as a very successful city. For example, if your metric is high violent crime and murder rates, Baltimore is extremely successful, not that any sane person would use such a metric.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports for 2005, the most current year-end statistics, show Maryland with the fourth highest violent crime rate of any state, largely thanks to Baltimore. In 2005, Maryland's violent crime rate per 100,000 population was 703.0, and its murder rate was 9.9. But Baltimore's violent crime rate per 100,000 population was 1,754.5, and its murder rate was 42.0. (For comparison, the rate for the United States overall was 469.2 violent crimes per 100,000 population and 5.6 murders. That puts Maryland 49.8 percent above the national violent crime rate and 76.8 percent above the national murder rate.)

Baltimore accounts for much of that difference. Baltimore has 11.4 percent of the population of Maryland but 28.6 percent of the violent crimes and 48.7 percent of the murders.[1]

If you lived in Baltimore in 2005, your chances of being murdered were greater than 1 in 2,500. Just in that year alone. So murder has been a serious problem by any standard.

To put these figures in context, let's pretend for a moment that Baltimore was not part of Maryland at all. The state, minus Baltimore, would have a violent crime rate of 567.0 per 100,000, down from the actual 703.0, and a murder rate of 5.7, down from the actual 9.9.[2] And yes, Virginia, we are indeed including Prince Georges County. The murder rate in Maryland, minus Baltimore, is roughly the national average.

I give you these statistics as background, because the mayor of Baltimore was recently elected governor of Maryland.

As far as I can tell, Governor O'Malley's only public pronouncement on crime policy since his election -- at the very least, his most public pronoucement, his most vigorously advocated pronouncement -- has been to call for abolition of the death penalty, which I might add has already been eliminated, de facto, in Baltimore. The governor has expressed his views on the morality of capital punishment in an op-ed in the Washington Post and has testified in the state legislature in favor of abolition.

The bill seeking abolition of the death penalty failed last week in committee -- which is why I'm bothering to talk about all of this. But it will be back, and it will succeed, eventually. Of that I have no doubt.

I'm very much in favor of the death penalty, in appropriate cases, but I can respect people who oppose it. With one qualification. That qualification is that they must pay serious attention to the problems that abolition raises.

If you're an executive and you can't use a particular solution to deal with a problem, you have to figure out a workable alternative. For example, if you run an American business overseas, where it's customary to bribe government officials, federal law prohibits you from engaging in those practices, so you have to figure out how to deal with the bureaucracy in some other way.

Similarly, if you're a governor who wants to abolish the death penalty for murder, you have to figure out a good, workable alternative. And you have to be serious about it.

How should we sentence murderers? To 10 years? 15? 25? Life?

If life, is it with or without parole? If with parole, how do you deal with the high-publicity parole hearings that inevitably will occur when the murderer is eligible for parole?

The bill actually proposed in the state senate offered life without parole as the alternative. But that raises its own issues: What do you do with murderers already serving sentences of life without parole who murder a prison guard? What else can you do to them, after all, besides take away their right to watch TV? By eliminating the death penalty, even for murderers serving sentences of life without parole, you've given these people a "murder a prison guard free" card. (Incidentally, Senator Alex Mooney, who had the key vote on the abolition bill, offered a substitute that would have allowed the death penalty for people who commit murder while in prison, but the abolition proponents rejected that compromise. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum.)

Sentencing murderers to life without parole also raises some moral issues. Death-penalty abolitionists invariably speak of the intolerable risk of error. But people who are sentenced to life without parole are no less likely, in our fallible criminal justice system, to be mistakenly convicted than people who are sentenced to death. Without a death penalty, however, you'll never find platoons of lawyers working pro bono to try to prove their innocence. They'll be almost totally ignored. Death is different. So in reality, a sentence of life without parole may well have the perverse effect of throwing away the key on the innocent.

I've seen nothing to indicate that the governor has taken any of these issues seriously. He's certainly engaged in a lot of moral preening, but little more.

"Can the death penalty ever be justified as public policy when it inherently necessitates the occasional taking of a wrongly convicted, innocent life?" O'Malley said during the first of two appearances yesterday before legislative committees. "Is any of us willing to sacrifice a member of our own family . . . in order to secure the execution of five rightly convicted murderers?"
Sure, and if we allow a speed limit of 65 MPH on I-95 north of Baltimore, people will die. Would you sacrifice a member of your own family so traffic can move more quickly?

I liked this one, too:
Human dignity is the concept that leads brave individuals to sacrifice their lives for the lives of strangers. Human dignity is the universal truth that is the basis of ethics. Human dignity is the fundamental belief on which the laws of this state and this republic are founded. And absent a deterrent value, the damage done to the concept of human dignity by our conscious communal use of the death penalty is greater than the benefit of even a justly drawn retribution.
Human dignity is also what the murderer stole from his victim, but never mind that.

In the same article, the governor threw around bogus statistics, as well: "In 2005, the murder rate was 46 percent higher in states that had the death penalty than in states without it -- although they had been about the same in 1990." Which is a little like saying that neighborhoods where police make arrests have more crime than those where they don't, so police should stop making arrests in the high-crime neighborhoods.

There are a lot of ways you could characterize people who engage in moral preening without regard to the consequences of what they're advocating. "Irresponsible" is one of the nicer ones.

[1] Population 641,097 out of 5,600,388. Violent crime 11,248 out of 39,369. Murders 269 out of 552. All figures from 2005 UCR.

[2] Population 4,959,291, violent crimes 28,121, and murders 283.