Monday, February 11, 2013

Retribution and Rehabilitation: Maryland Death Penalty

Word out of Annapolis is that the votes are there in the Senate to pass a death penalty repeal and, with presumed passage in the House of Delegates, have Maryland join the 17 other States that have either never instated the penalty or repealed it since first enactment.  The Sun gave the issue full coverage this past weekend with the perspective of victims' family members, inmates' family members, and legislators.  While the emotional side of this issue is to be appreciated, it is unlikely any of this coverage swayed votes.  The critical question that may be left without answer up and through the vote is: How do we deter the damned?  For those criminals that have already been given life without parole, what is there left to lose?

This is a question that exists in our heads more than it does in practice.  A 2002 review of prison murders found that of 87 prison inmates killed in jail, only 1 of them occurred in a State that did not have the death penalty.

But I wonder if we are missing the bigger picture.  Is our prison model overly focused on Retribution over Rehabilitation?  What are we getting for the annual operating budget of $1.2 billion to supervise 22,000 inmates in 22 prisons?

And I understand the temptation here is to scoff at rehabilitation.  The limits of semantics indicate that a "rehabilitative" prison sentence is for the good of the prisoner.  However, when you consider that over 10% of all Marylanders are on probation or parole, we're not just talking about "prisoners", we're talking about our lower class.  Prison can, and often does, define a person.  You are either a criminal or you are not.  If you are the former, a life of crime is not only an invitation but a mandate.  Certainly this carries with it significant deterrent force...presuming a considered mind. 

Our discussion of the death penalty, particularly as it relates to prison safety, demands a larger discussion about what we want for our prison dollars.  We may never rehabilitate a murderer for release, and that may be fine, but does that end the discussion.  Are we labeling people murderers-ever-after?  More importantly, is our "corrections" system really designed for correction, or are we just creating a criminal class?

This far removed from the prison system, in the richest county, in the richest state, we are privileged to approach these questions as a matter of philosophy or criminal justice theory.  Sure, it doesn't feel that way when our house is broken into or our car is stolen, but crime in this part of the State is rarely a matter of life and death.  I understand and acknowledge that my own empathy is a matter of privilege.  You will not find a population harder on crime (and criminals) than those who live in the worst parts of Baltimore or D.C. 

That doesn't prohibit the question.  Is our corrections system making it worse at the end of a wrathful sentence?  Do we need a greater focus on rehabilitation?  Are we getting our money's worth?