Blogging for Nonviolence, Justice, and Peace

Today we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a country.  Well, most of us did--though it was a federal holiday, schools across the southern US had to make the difficult decision to have an official, if optional school day to make up for the days missed because of weather over the past weeks.  While I don't have a strong opinion about that decision--it sounds like most, if not all of those schools made a special point to learn about Dr. King today--I have decided to begin writing today, and tracking my thoughts about nonviolence, justice, and peace over the next few months.  While a Season for Nonviolence does not officially start until the end of this month, my hope is to gain personal momentum so that I am better prepared to participate during those days, and beyond. My plan starting then is to reflect each day on a nonviolent warrior, a man or woman or group that has changed the course of history using nonviolent means.  This is a warm up, because Dr. King is on my mind, and so is the death penalty. 

So, while we take inspiration from the vision, beauty, and life of Dr. King, let's realize that it's time to abolish the death penalty now.  There is perhaps no larger step that we can take as a society to address the abhorrent challenges of racism, poverty, and violence, against which Dr. King fought.  I know that I'm fresh off of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's annual conference, and both inspired and incredibly humbled by this movement, but I am convinced that taking a strong stand on this issue, and making our voices heard now is the most we can do to affect broad social change, and bring about a more just, respectful, and peaceful world. 

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, and reflect on his continuing legacy, it’s impossible not to think of racism, poverty, and violence.  And nothing renders the perpetuation of these illnesses more starkly in American society than our use of the death penalty.

It is well documented that the criminal justice system in this country affects poor, minority communities much more harshly than anyone else, and the death penalty only exacerbates these disparities.  In Maryland right now, 87% of death row is black and male.  Despite the fact that only 23% of the death-eligible cases in the last 30 years had a black perpetrator and a white victim, 70% of the death sentences over the same amount of time had that combination. 

As it does everywhere else, Maryland’s death penalty at its best is arbitrary, and at worst tells a profound tale of institutional racism.

While the social costs of a broken criminal justice are terrible, so too are the economic costs. Prosecuting a death penalty case costs three times as much as life imprisonment in Maryland.  Over the last 30 years, almost $200 million could have been saved, and that money could have been used to create a safer society through prevention programs.  Further, that money could be used to better serve victims of crime. 

And what about victims, you might ask?  In 2008, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted 20-1 that the death penalty is more harmful to victims than alternatives.  Policy makers and human rights advocates are not the only ones who understand this; in fact, victims themselves are on the front lines to abolish the practice of state execution.  Organizations like Murder Victims Families for Human Rights and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation not only build networks of support for victims (most of whom do not receive the services that they need), but also remind us that justice is more about healing than about revenge. 

The death penalty does not deter, does not repair, and risks taking more innocent lives.  It perpetuates violence, when Dr. King advocated constantly for forgiveness.  Not the forgiveness that means what someone else did was ok, but the forgiveness that dissolves destructive anger, and heals the pain of victims on all sides. “Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive,” he wrote in Strength to Love.  “In spite of the fact that the law of revenge solves no social problems, men continue to follow its disastrous leading.  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path.”

Let’s no longer follow that path, which leads only to more violence, heals no wounds, and continues to risk the livelihoods and the future of this state and this country.  15 states have abolished this ineffective and harmful practice.  Last week, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, and now wait for the governor to sign the bill.  Maryland should be next. 

In 2008 the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended vast remedies to the criminal justice system, including repeal of the death penalty.  In 2009, a compromise took us part of the way.  It’s time to take the last step, and abolish the death penalty now.