The steep price of 'life means life' in Maryland

When the commission on capital punishment in Maryland, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ben Civiletti, issued its final report last year, it concluded that the death penalty was not a cost-effective tool in the cause of public safety — in short, it was a waste of taxpayer money.

The commission looked at the costs for prosecutors and public defenders at trials and for the litigation of appeals over a 30-year period and found them "substantially higher" than those for cases in which the maximum sentence was life imprisonment.

The Urban Institute, a Washington think tank that thinks a lot about the cost of government policies, estimated Maryland's total bill for the death penalty between 1978 and 1999 at $186 million.

Though some Civiletti commissioners challenged that number, everyone agreed that the state's expensive efforts to execute its worst killers were not paying off; 62 of 77 death sentences were ultimately reversed. And while they waited for the outcomes of their cases, inmates sat on death row — at an average annual cost of about $68,000.

"There are other areas in the Maryland criminal justice system where such resources could be applied and significant results could be expected," the report concluded.

It's time for another independent commission to look at two more questions in this realm of cost-effective public safety:

1. Does the O'Malley administration's present policy of "life means life," or no parole for lifers, make sense for taxpayers, or does it merely exist for the benefit of politicians?

2. Should the governor be stripped of the power to reject recommendations of parole that come from the Maryland Parole Commission?

Those questions are connected, and allow me to introduce Hercules Williams as a way of explaining.

Mr. Williams was charged, along with three other men, with the killing of a man named Alonzo Alston at his rowhouse in Baltimore in July 1972. Mr. Williams was 29 years old at the time. He pleaded not guilty, but a jury convicted him of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

The murder charge was later reversed, but the conspiracy count stood up.

Mr. Williams has been in prison since November 1972.

He has always claimed innocence. Many years after the trial, one of his co-conspirators came out and said Hercules Williams had had nothing to do with the Alston murder, but judges who heard Mr. Williams' appeals were not persuaded to alter his sentence.

Hercules Williams is now 67 years old.

I've looked through his file. Everything indicates that Mr. Williams has progressed as a human being while in prison. He's received all kinds of letters of commendation and certificates.

He was cited for rendering first aid to a correctional officer who was stabbed by another inmate at the old Maryland Penitentiary in 1978.

He was on work-release on the Eastern Shore for a time in the 1990s and earned an employee-of-the-month award from a chicken processor. But the governor at the time, Parris Glendening, ended work-release for anyone sentenced to life, so Mr. Williams went back inside.

He earned a bachelor's degree from Coppin State University and was in the midst of studies toward a master's degree when Congress, informed by conservative talk-show hosts that a tiny percentage of the federal budget was going to college grants for inmates, withdrew the funding that had made Mr. Williams' education possible.

There have been several different chairmen of the Maryland Parole Commission during his time inside the walls, and the parole commission has recommended that Mr. Williams be released at least three times.

But it hasn't happened because of Parris Glendening and, now, Martin O'Malley. Both governors, both Democrats, have adhered to the simple-minded "life means life" policy, meaning no parole for lifers, even the older ones who were sentenced with the possibility of being paroled. Maryland is only one of three states that allow their governors to ignore or reject parole commission recommendations.

And what is the cost of the Glendening-O'Malley "no-parole-cuz-we're-tough-guys" stridency?

For the last several years, I've been told that it costs the state about $25,000 to $27,000 annually to keep a man in prison. The cost was certainly lower in 1972, when Hercules Williams went into the correctional system. If, over the last 38 years, the average annual cost of keeping him locked up was about $17,000, then Mr. Williams has cost the state about $425,000 in cell and board. Add in the cost of his original trials and subsequent appeals, and $500,000 sounds about right, even on the conservative side.

What's the purpose, at this point, of keeping this man — and others his age — inside any longer, and on the public tab?

Someone needs to take a look at what the politicians have done to the parole process, what it's costing us and whether it really serves public safety.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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