Death penalty support looks tough but does no good

Dan Rodricks

SUPPORTING the death penalty -- saying so in public -- is a way for an otherwise liberal and progressive-thinking man or woman to flash tough-on-crime bona fides. Personally, they might think capital punishment to be barbaric; they might believe in their hearts that no society that puts criminals to death can consider itself civilized. But they flash support for the ultimate penalty anyway. This has been the trend among Democrats as they've played catch-up-to-Republicans since the Reagan Revolution.


Go back to the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan reached the White House on a wave of reinvigorated conservatism. The Republicans had the upper hand, and Democrats were saddled with "the failed policies of the past" and the loser legacy of Jimmy Carter. Down in Arkansas, Bill Clinton lost gubernatorial re-election; his opponent had, among other things, accused him of being soft on crime.

By the time Clinton emerged to regain the White House for his party 12 years later, the Democrats had supposedly learned their lesson. They had moved to the middle by appropriating some of the conservatives' ideas, including embrace of the death penalty.

Clinton is remembered for many things that will provide David Letterman, Jay Leno and late-night stand-ups of the future with material for the next five or six decades. But his legacy is also marred by Rickey Ray Rector, the brain-damaged killer whose lethal injection Clinton approved as governor of Arkansas in the midst of his first campaign for the White House. (Rector was put to death on Super Bowl weekend 1992, but the event was pretty much lost in news coverage of Gennifer Flowers' accusations. The Flowers scandal threatened to derail Clinton's campaign and forced his first public denials of infidelities.)

To become a death penalty supporter, Clinton had to jettison moral arguments and ignore the intellectual ones -- several studies that showed capital punishment to be dished out unevenly, probably administered in a racist way, and that it served no deterrent effect -- and put the likes of Rickey Rector to death. Clinton showed that the "new Democrat" was capable of just about anything to lock up voters who had been sliding across to the Republican side.

"I have been for [capital punishment] all my life," one of the leading Democrats in Maryland, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, boasted to The Sun. "If there's a gallows, I'll pull the lever. If there's a gas chamber, I'll turn the valve. If it's lethal injection, I'll insert the needle."

Not so macho and bloodthirsty was Parris Glendening, the Maryland college professor and Prince George's county executive, who emerged as the leading Democratic candidate for governor here in 1994. Glendening, a progressive on nearly every front, not only supported the death penalty but wanted to accelerate the process. He likely believed that, even in a state where Democrats have the upper hand, he needed capital punishment for tough-on-crime credibility -- especially in pitched battle with a conservative Republican opponent.

Even his lieutenant governor, a Kennedy, supports the death penalty. But now they both also support a moratorium on executions -- Glendening in his last year in office, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in what she hopes will be the year she succeeds him. (The moratorium will likely force KKT to be more vocal on the death penalty than she previously has been, or wanted to be.)

Glendening's public image has been banged pretty hard over the past eight years -- in this space and others -- but he has a remarkable record of progressive achievement in funding for schools and in environmental preservation; he has been admirably firm in opposition to slot machines and casino gambling and to the construction of a dubious highway connector. But he has remained a death penalty supporter -- even as he called for a moratorium while the fairness of the sentence is studied.

With all due respect to the governor, these questions have been around for years. Unevenness in sentencing, the influence of race, the doubts about the sentence's deterrent quality -- there's nothing new about these things. (Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, is one of the few public leaders willing to point out these flaws.)

Bill Clinton showed how an otherwise progressive-thinking man can cast such questions -- and perhaps his own sense of humanity, civility and morality -- aside for the sake of votes.

It's unfortunate voters use support of the death penalty as a litmus test for their elected leaders.

It makes more sense to know their views on corrections. Is a candidate interested in putting money into simply warehousing criminals or into the much tougher challenge of actually trying to change their ways while incarcerated?

In terms of how most of us live our lives in this state from year to year, the rate of recidivism among the general, statewide population of prison inmates is a far more important measure of a governor's tenure than his rate of executions.

It makes a lot more sense to evaluate a candidate's plan for humanely dealing with thousands of juvenile offenders than to waste time, energy and debate over the death penalty. Increasing the pay and improving the training for police officers is important. Smooth-running courts, adequate staff to track offenders who are paroled or on probation, drug treatment on demand for the poorest of addicts -- those are far more significant than whether Maryland has a death row.

This is the part no one likes to talk about -- the fact that we pretty much took the "corrections" out of corrections a long time ago and did little for the majority of inmates but warehouse them. When it comes to crime and punishment, this is the hard-sweat of public policy and political leadership. Flashing the death penalty card (even Hillary Clinton did it while running for U.S. Senate) is relatively easy. Killing a few murderers every year gives the impression of an effective criminal justice system when, in fact, little changes because of it.
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