As the Maryland General Assembly under the leadership of Governor Martin O’Malley considers repealing the death penalty, hired guns from the pro-death penalty lobby are once again digging up the requisite psycho-killers, homicidal maniacs, and boogey men from the recesses of our imaginations to reinsert fear, panic, and visceral hatred into the debate.
Enter Sun columnist Gregory Kane and newly elected Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger. Kane’s never-say-live attitude when it comes to capital punishment met a new low when in a recent column he attempted to stoke public fears that without the death penalty, corrections officers will be “left to the tender mercies of leaders of prison gangs” like the “Black Guerilla Family.” The Black Guerilla Family? What is this, 1975? Even rapper Kool G Rap has given up trying to appear menacing by claiming association with the 70’s era militant group.
While Shellenberger’s approach while admittedly is more subtle, it doesn’t stray much from Kane’s central argument. Introduced to him outside last Wednesday’s Senate Judicary Committee hearings on the death penalty, I asked Shellenberger why he supported the sentence of death despite its clear failure as a deterrent to crime. He replied that he believed “in the deterrence of one.” Inside the committee room he went on to say, “When you’re dealing with the worst of the worst of criminals, sometimes you have to come down to the simplest equations.”
Shellenberger’s equations might be simple, but they don’t add up. Putting aside the obvious fact that we DO have the death penalty and prisoners and guards are STILL dying — no one can seriously suggest that executing violent prisoners will prevent further violence. This badly recycled deterrence argument is an argument based on fear.
Of course, Maryland politicians have been extremely susceptible to this kind of emotional manipulation. As over the past 30-years the legislature witnessed a massive transformation of the state economy. We have seen Baltimore change from an industrial and union powerhouse to a near hollow service-economy shell. During these painful changes it has been easier (and has made better headlines) to call for increased policing, incarceration, and executions than to invest, educate, and rehabilitate. As terrible crimes regularly erupt from Baltimore’s devastated communities — one good scapegoat is worth a thousand job training programs.
Making matters worse, these irrational ‘tough-on-crime’ policies have produced a prison system in total crisis. As tens of thousands of twenty-something men are warehoused in overcrowded facilities like the one in Jessup, without access to education, physical recreation, or drug treatment services the violence that erupts against prisoners and correction officers alike is both tragic and predictable. The straining system can’t handle the numbers, train the guards, or deal with the chaos that results from Maryland’s “lock-’em-up or kill ’em” policies.
If a mad scientist could ring elite John Hopkins University with walls and barbed wire, increased its population many times over, halted classes, degraded the services, and stopped all physical exercise — in short order you’d see the same unfortunate patterns.
Genuine, practical, and rational solutions to improving prison conditions are not controversial and have demonstrated proven results but they mean abandoning fear for reason. Remedies championed by academics and prison officials alike include restoring Pell grants, expanding educational and treatment services, and improving living conditions. Outside of our expanding prison walls, it is clear we need to heed the call of Governor O’Malley to move away from the simple minded logic of incarceration and executions and begin addressing anti-social behavior from a rational standpoint.
The politics of irrational fear have created both a broken death penalty system and a prison system in crisis. What is needed now is not more of the same, but a restoration of practical reason and hope.
MIKE STARK is a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). He is also a regular contributer to the CEDP’s newsletter, The New Abolitionist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.