When the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment urged repeal of the death penalty in 2008, it also made a second, much less publicized recommendation: increase the resources and services for the surviving families of homicide. The Commission clearly listened to the testimony of about a dozen family members of murder victims, including 2005 OSI Baltimore Community Fellow Bonnita Spikes, who now serves as MD CASE’s murder victims’ organizer. Based on her own experience as a survivor, and her ongoing outreach to other murder victims’ family members, particularly in Baltimore, Ms. Spikes emphasized the dire, hereto unmet needs of poor, largely black families for ongoing support and grief counseling services.
Meanwhile, a 2008 study commissioned by the Abell Foundation, reveals that Maryland has expended at least $186 million on its death penalty over the last three decades. A single death sentence in our state costs three times more—or $1.9 million more—than a comparable non-death penalty case, including the costs of long-term incarceration.
Repealing the death penalty would allow a dramatic shift in criminal justice policy priorities. Many victims advocates recognize that homicide survivors are the most invisible and underserved of all crimes victims. This is especially true in our state as homicides occur in the same communities that are disproportionately impacted by poverty, incarceration, and crime. More than 75% of Maryland’s homicide victims are black and half fall in Baltimore City. Meanwhile, Maryland’s death penalty is reserved for white victim murders (all 5 death sentences pending, all 5 executions carried out), and has been disproportionately imposed by Baltimore County.
My audacious idea is that we repeal the death penalty and redirect some of the state tax dollars now spent on death toward comprehensive services that meet the long-term needs of homicide survivors. Such action will not only help long neglected, traumatized families, it can break cycles of violence, where particularly young victims become perpetrators, and make our communities safer.