Death penalty irrational it doesn't help, it only kills

ROGER SIMON

September 23, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Mayor Schmoke wants to kill in order to stop the killing.

He wants to kill the people on Maryland's death row in the belief that this will help stop crime.

He is wrong. It will not help. It will only kill.

Mayor Schmoke's outburst over the weekend -- "The death penalty in this state has just got to happen" -- can be excused as an emotional response to the terrible shootings of two police officers in two days.

But it cannot be excused as rational policy.

Had it been someone other than Schmoke, I would dismiss it as a crude political smoke screen:

Make people angry at those on death row in order to divert blame from those in City Hall.

But Schmoke is better than that. I can think only that his statement came because he has been forced into a desperate corner:

None of Schmoke's plans for Baltimore can succeed if the city is too dangerous to live or work in.

But how does a man with such a humane (though not necessarily correct) view of drug abuse come to have such a harsh view on capital punishment?

Consider: If a person is addicted to drugs, Schmoke believes he should be treated medically rather than sanctioned criminally.

But what if that person kills while on drugs? Does Schmoke treat him? Or gas him?

As a former prosecutor, Schmoke has always supported the death penalty. But the question of whether the death penalty protects police has been asked by criminologists before.

Here is the conclusion of a statistical analysis covering an 11-year period done by William C. Bailey of Cleveland State University and Ruth D. Peterson of Ohio State University and published in 1987:

"Not for a single year was evidence found that police are safer in jurisdictions that provide for capital punishment. Nor did the analysis produce a single instance where higher levels of death sentences are associated significantly with lower rates of police killings. . . . In sum, the safety of police officers from lethal violence is an important problem, but its resolution does not lie in capital punishment.

"[Two authors of another study] may have been correct when they argued that 'paramount in solving the assault of police problem is the great need for special training of police officers . . . to anticipate and handle potential assaults.' "

Schmoke would argue that if Maryland actually executed people rather than just sentencing them to death, potential criminals would be deterred from future crime.

But most shootings are not plotted out in advance by calm individuals weighing risks and rewards.

An enraged person, a person on drugs, a drunk person, a person who is crazy or a sociopath is not going to stop and say: "Wait a second. Maryland has the death penalty and now, for the first time since 1961, executions are being carried out as per Mayor Schmoke's request. So I better not pull the trigger."

That's not how real life works.

The relationship between any sentence and deterrence is a foggy one. One reason is that most criminals do not expect to be caught or punished.

So what effect does a potential punishment have on you if you don't expect ever to face that punishment?

The men on Maryland's death row are still alive because they are appealing their cases. This process is slow and costly.

But some people who have been convicted of crimes are found later to be innocent or are granted new trials on appeal.

And the Constitution's 14th Amendment demands that the state not "deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

Blood lust is not enough. Revenge is not enough. Wanting to make the streets of Baltimore safer is not enough. None is enough to overturn the due process of law.

The real question is why so many people are being shot with such abandon on the streets of Baltimore.

The answer to that question may not lie on death row. It may lie in City Hall. Or police headquarters. Or most likely of all, I think, in the communities themselves.

But killing people, whether it is in the gas chamber or on the streets, is not the answer.

When we become as savage as the criminals, it does not make life safer.

It just makes it harder to tell the good guys from the bad.

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