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November 29, 2012

NAACP leadership (over?)committed to death penalty repeal in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun has this interesting new article on debate over the death penalty in Maryland headlined "NAACP to step up Maryland death penalty fight."  Here are excerpts:

The NAACP is vowing to mount in Annapolis its largest-ever effort to abolish the death penalty in a state, saying Maryland's historic role in the civil rights movement makes it an appropriate place for the push.

In an interview, NAACP President Ben Jealous said Maryland is the civil rights organization's top priority in its broader campaign to eliminate capital punishment from the American justice system.  He said the group will spend more than it ever has in a state as it rallies citizens to pressure lawmakers for repeal. "We'll make sure people hear from their constituents in a way they've never heard from them before," Jealous said.

The NAACP has historically opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied. Jealous said Maryland is especially important to the NAACP because of the state's civil rights history — including the careers of native sons Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass. "There's a special debt of honor to get this done in Maryland for the NAACP," Jealous said.

His announcement comes as Gov. Martin O'Malley, a death penalty opponent, is weighing whether to put the full weight of his office behind a renewed effort to shut down Maryland's Death Row.  A previous O'Malley effort ended in 2009 with a compromise bill that narrowed the circumstances under which a killer can be sentenced to death but left capital punishment on the books.

Jealous declined to say how much money the NAACP plans to raise for the campaign.  He said that in addition to its existing resources, the group will hold dedicated fundraisers for the Maryland repeal effort, along with "unlikely and powerful allies" he declined to name.

While a full-scale effort by the NAACP could be influential, there is no guarantee that its clout would be powerful enough to break the impasse that has existed in the Maryland General Assembly....

Even some who favor repeal say any sense of urgency has been diminished by a de facto moratorium on executions in Maryland since 2006, the result of a court ruling striking down the regulations under which executions are carried out. Maryland has five men on Death Row — four black, one white — for murders going back as far as 1983, and it appears that over the next several years they face little risk of a lethal injection.

The five killers sentenced to death here are not likely to evoke much sympathy. They include the gunman and mastermind in a 1983 witness assassination plot that killed two at a Baltimore County motel, two men who murdered elderly neighbors in separate robberies in Prince George's County in 1996 and Baltimore in 1983, and the killer of a theater manager on the Eastern Shore in 1997.

Jealous said that while the freeze on executions may spare those men in the short term, keeping the death penalty on the books imposes costs that divert state resources from other crime-fighting measures.  "Every million dollars we spend on the death penalty is a million dollars we can't spend on hiring homicide detectives," he said.

He said anti-death-penalty forces have been on a roll, having banned capital punishment in five states in five years, including Connecticut last year.  He said the NAACP's strategy is to win abolition in a majority of states and then to ask the Supreme Court to strike it down as an unconstitutionally "unusual" punishment.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I am somewhat troubled by the decision by NAACP President Ben Jealous to make repeal of Maryland's dormant death penalty a priority over other race and criminal justice issues in that state and elsewhere.  As this Washington Post article from a few years ago highlights, the racial skew and scope of Maryland's use of life sentences seem a much bigger matter worthy of greater attention:

More than 2,300 Maryland inmates were serving life sentences last year, nearly 10 percent of the prison population, according to an advocacy group report released [in August 2009].... Nearly 77 percent of inmates in prison for life in Maryland are African American, making it the state with the largest share of black prisoners serving life sentences. Among the 269 prisoners in Maryland sentenced to life for crimes committed when they were juveniles, 226 are black.

In other words, while the NAACP is going to invest heavy resources in trying to alter an already dormant Maryland death penalty to benefit five brutal adult murderers, there are well over 1750 black defendants (and many black juvenile offenders) serving functionally the same life sentence in Maryland for less horrific offenses.  And, as highlighted by this recent commentary headlined "For many juveniles in Maryland, parole is out of reach," the NAACP could likely do a lot more good for both black and white offenders by trying to revive Maryland's dormant parole system rather than trying to kill its dormant capital system.

Additional disturbing realities about racial skews in Maryland's criminal justice system are detailed in this press report following a state hearing on the topic this past summer:

Blacks and Hispanics are arrested, convicted and jailed at a higher rate than whites in Maryland and are over-represented in criminal justice proceedings when compared to their percentage of the state's population, advocates said at a meeting this week of the rights commission's state advisory committee in Annapolis....

More than 72 percent of Marylanders in prison are black, according to data from the Maryland Division of Correction.  That compares to 29.4 percent of blacks as a proportion of the statewide population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau....

Less than 1 percent (0.77) of white Marylanders are arrested for drug offenses compared to 2.7 percent of black Marylanders [despite similar reported drug use rates]....

In 2013, Maryland’s Division of Correction budget increased 1.4 percent, or $11.4 million. More than 35,000 people are incarcerated in the state, and almost 70,000 are on parole, probation or other supervised release, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

But while racial disparities persist in an ever-growing Maryland criminal justice system that impacts tens of thousands of offenders, the NAACP's priority is now to raise money and pressure state legislatures to make sure five murderers no longer have to worry about an (already unlikely) execution date.

November 29, 2012 at 06:43 PM | Permalink

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| | Less than 1 percent (0.77) of white Marylanders are arrested for drug offenses compared to 2.7 percent of black Marylanders [despite similar reported drug use rates]....| |

-- So urge the aggressive pursuit of white Marylander offenders! Should we release white child molesters until blacks are represented proportionately?

-- Like prostitutes versus customers, those lower on the totem poll catch more flak…did Stalin or Hitler face counter-strikes and retaliatory fire for ordering violent attacks and murders? No, their troops did.

Posted by: Adamakis | Nov 30, 2012 10:03:19 AM

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