Unrepresentative committee blocks Md. death penalty repeal vote

Anyone who has followed the effort to repeal the death penalty in Maryland knows that the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is the last obstacle needed to bring it to a long-overdue floor vote. The Maryland State Conference of the NAACP believes that repeal of the death penalty is too important to be stymied by the committee's makeup. Death penalty abolition would save Maryland millions of dollars and prevent future murders. The question deserves an up or down vote on the floor of the Maryland Senate — even if it means restructuring the committee.

We respect the committee structure as a tool to help legislators specialize in certain areas and focus on the specifics of niche issues. But we also remember the long history of civil rights bills bottled up in committee to prevent a vote. And right now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues but fails to adequately represent those who are affected by these issues the most — people of color.

The democratic nature of the General Assembly is distorted when committees are not truly representative of the people they are supposed to represent, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is an unfortunate example.

Despite Maryland's 31 percent African-American population, the committee has only one African-American member out of 11, Sen. Lisa Gladden of Baltimore. This is inexcusable for a group that oversees the death penalty, not to mention the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity, zero-tolerance policing and the use of SWAT teams. African-American senators who represent predominantly African-American districts would offer unique perspectives on these policies, which have historically affected our community disproportionately.

The Judicial Proceedings Committee is also geographically unrepresentative of Maryland. Four of its 11 members are from Baltimore County, a large, predominantly white area that borders a large, predominantly African-American urban jurisdiction. Baltimore County is also the jurisdiction that has produced the overwhelming majority of death penalty prosecutions in the state.

It is no coincidence that that the four Baltimore County legislators are all "no" votes on allowing the death penalty repeal bill to go to a floor vote. It may be a side effect of human nature that, since 1978, every prisoner executed for murder in Maryland was accused of killing a white person — though three-quarters of homicide victims in the state are black. But this racial bias has no place in public policy.

Every African-American senator in Maryland has signed a letter urging the repeal of the death penalty. These senators understand that in a state where nearly half of all murders go unsolved — the majority in predominantly African American neighborhoods — wasting our scarce funds on the death penalty is ineffective and unacceptable.

These senators understand that repealing the death penalty isn't about letting killers off the hook but about catching more killers by better targeting our limited resources. They see how violence in their communities has taken its toll on the families of victims and the psyches of their constituents. The resources saved from ending the death penalty could also be used to help victims' families in their time of loss.

It's time for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to change the makeup of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Marylanders of all colors deserve better representation, and the Senate deserves an up or down floor vote on the death penalty.

Gerald Stansbury is president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference.

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