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October 24, 2010

Taking stock of the costs of life and death (sentences) in Maryland

Today's Baltimore Sun has this interesting pieceheadlined "The steep price of 'life means life' in Maryland: Time for a commission on the cost of allowing governors to say no to parole for even senior lifers." Here are excerpts:

When the commission on capital punishment in Maryland, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ben Civiletti, issued its final report last year, it concluded that the death penalty was not a cost-effective tool in the cause of public safety — in short, it was a waste of taxpayer money....  "There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected," the report concluded.

It's time for another independent commission to look at two more questions in this realm of cost-effective public safety:

1. Does the O'Malley administration's present policy of "life means life," or no parole for lifers, make sense for taxpayers, or does it merely exist for the benefit of politicians?

2. Should the governor be stripped of the power to reject recommendations of parole that come from the Maryland Parole Commission?

Those questions are connected, and allow me to introduce Hercules Williams as a way of explaining. Mr. Williams was charged, along with three other men, with the killing of a man named Alonzo Alston at his rowhouse in Baltimore in July 1972.  Mr. Williams was 29 years old at the time.  He pleaded not guilty, but a jury convicted him of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

The murder charge was later reversed, but the conspiracy count stood up.  Mr. Williams has been in prison since November 1972. He has always claimed innocence.  Many years after the trial, one of his co-conspirators came out and said Hercules Williams had had nothing to do with the Alston murder, but judges who heard Mr. Williams' appeals were not persuaded to alter his sentence.

Hercules Williams is now 67 years old.  I've looked through his file.  Everything indicates that Mr. Williams has progressed as a human being while in prison.  He's received all kinds of letters of commendation and certificates.  He was cited for rendering first aid to a correctional officer who was stabbed by another inmate at the old Maryland Penitentiary in 1978.

He was on work-release on the Eastern Shore for a time in the 1990s and earned an employee-of-the-month award from a chicken processor.  But the governor at the time, Parris Glendening, ended work-release for anyone sentenced to life, so Mr. Williams went back inside.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Coppin State University and was in the midst of studies toward a master's degree when Congress, informed by conservative talk-show hosts that a tiny percentage of the federal budget was going to college grants for inmates, withdrew the funding that had made Mr. Williams' education possible.

There have been several different chairmen of the Maryland Parole Commission during his time inside the walls, and the parole commission has recommended that Mr. Williams be released at least three times.  But it hasn't happened because of Parris Glendening and, now, Martin O'Malley.  Both governors, both Democrats, have adhered to the simple-minded "life means life" policy, meaning no parole for lifers, even the older ones who were sentenced with the possibility of being paroled....

And what is the cost of the Glendening-O'Malley "no-parole-cuz-we're-tough-guys" stridency?  For the last several years, I've been told that it costs the state about $25,000 to $27,000 annually to keep a man in prison.  The cost was certainly lower in 1972, when Hercules Williams went into the correctional system.  If, over the last 38 years, the average annual cost of keeping him locked up was about $17,000, then Mr. Williams has cost the state about $425,000 in cell and board.  Add in the cost of his original trials and subsequent appeals, and $500,000 sounds about right, even on the conservative side.

What's the purpose, at this point, of keeping this man — and others his age — inside any longer, and on the public tab?  Someone needs to take a look at what the politicians have done to the parole process, what it's costing us and whether it really serves public safety.

October 24, 2010 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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Comments

1. The DP is too expensive, so we've got to get rid of it. (See numerous posts here).

2. LWOP is too expensive, so we've got to get rid of it. (See post above).

3. Life with parole is too expensive, so we've got to get rid of it. (Coming soon to a blog near you).

4. Twenty years is too expensive, so we've got to get rid of it. (Next year will be here in no time).

5. Guess what!!!

I've been saying here for some time that the real plan is the end of punishment altogether, because the reigning defense ideology is that criminals are really Mr. Nicey, and that they are less malefactors than society's victims.

One of the virtues of persistence is that, sooner or later, the other side shows itself. Welcome to today's Baltimore Sun.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 24, 2010 11:20:01 AM

"What's the purpose, at this point, of keeping this man — and others his age — inside any longer, and on the public tab? "

The answer is simply. He is a murder.

Posted by: jim | Oct 24, 2010 8:15:58 PM

Correction: I retract my statement that the reigning defense ideology is that the defendant is Mr. Nicey. Most defense lawyers know, even better than the prosecutor, that the defendant is anything but Mr. Nicey, since -- among other things -- they get lied to even more often than the prosecutor gets lied to. In many cases they overly sympathize with the client, but this is not the same as regarding him as Mr. Nicey. My experience is that the more effective defense lawyers seem to have a pretty realistic grasp on who the client is.

I fully repeat the other part of my statement, to wit, that the reigning defense ideology is that the defendant is less a malefactor than a victim of society. The (to me) mystifying refusal to see that the client has made his own choices is something I believe jurors sense, and contributes to counsel's typically terminal problem trying to persuade them.

Of course it's not the main problem. Evidence is the main problem.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 25, 2010 10:39:49 AM

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