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How the death penalty will end: first Maryland, then the nation

The death penalty debate in Maryland is finally over. This spring's decision by the General Assembly to replace the death penalty with life without parole was cemented last week, when right-wing activists failed to muster enough signatures to force the issue onto the ballot. We, the people of Maryland, have sent a clear and firm message: capital punishment belongs in our past, not our future.

In doing so, we have joined New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut as the sixth state in six years and 18th in the nation to abolish the death penalty. We have brought America one state closer to joining the rest of the Western world in putting capital punishment behind us once and for all.

The question in front of us is a simple one: where do we go from here? The answer is both clear and urgent. We must abolish the death penalty in America, and we must shift law enforcement resources toward proven crime-prevention strategies like community-oriented policing and more police on the streets.

That is why the NAACP and our allies will stay focused on abolishing the death penalty in America as a whole. Our strategy is clear: We will outlaw it in a majority of states, and then we will go to the United States Supreme Court and make the argument that the punishment is not only cruel by its very nature but also unusual because most states have passed laws against it.

This is why the change in Maryland is so critical to advancing justice in states like Georgia. In 2011, that state chose to execute Troy Davis despite new and compelling evidence of his innocence. In doing so, officials there chose to ignore pleas from more than a million Americans — including the former head of the FBI under President George W. Bush and the former warden of the very death row where Mr. Davis was killed — to halt the execution because there was too much doubt.

It is also why Georgia's murderous mistake is so important to the future of our country. According to the polling firm Gallup, in the month following Davis' execution, public opposition to the death penalty reached its highest level in the previous 40 years. Last month, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper noted Maryland's repeal and the broader national shift as he announced his decision to grant temporary reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap. He even gave reason to hope that his state will be next; he quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun saying that "the death penalty experiment has failed."

However, as someone who has had a family member murdered here in Maryland and as the leader of an organization headquartered in Baltimore with local branches organizing in many of the most violent places in our nation, I must say that abolishing the death penalty is not enough. Simply put, our nation and our state have too many neighborhoods and too many cities where more than half of all murders go unsolved every year.

The only effective way to deter killings in our streets is to ensure justice is swift and certain. In order to do so, we must ensure both that we have police leadership that builds strong partnerships and trust with all communities and also that they have enough officers and detectives to ensure every homicide in every community is responded to with the requisite resources to find and catch killers quickly.

Cities across the nation have increased homicide case solve rates and lowered overall violent crime by combining community oriented policing with a focus on ensuring every homicide case receives the resources it needs to be solved.

As former San Francisco Police Commissioner David Onek said to me, "The death penalty does not make us safer and is a tremendous waste of public resources. We should invest our limited resources in things that do make us safer, like putting more cops on the street to partner with communities to solve and prevent homicides."

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president of the NAACP.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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