Why the death penalty needs to go

O'Malley attacks Clinton over death penalty
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O'Malley attacks Clinton over death penalty 01:18

Story highlights

  • Presidential candidate Martin O'Malley says he believes death penalty should be abolished
  • Death penalty costs states more than a life sentence does, he says

Martin O'Malley, a former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, is seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Friday night, South Carolina will host a Democratic presidential forum. And while the field of candidates may now be down to three, there are still many issues confronting this country that need to be discussed. These are critical issues that have not received the attention they deserve, but raise questions that go right to the heart of who we are as a people.

It would, of course, be a glaring oversight to ignore the struggles South Carolina has faced over criminal justice reform -- challenges we as a country are all grappling with. However, there is a particular, fundamental flaw in our justice system that other candidates appear to lack the commitment to address -- our failed reliance on the death penalty. This is a tragedy both because it is a racially biased punishment, and also ineffective in deterring crime.
Our nation was founded not on fear and retribution. It was born from higher things: freedom, justice, human dignity, and equal rights before the law. And so we must ask ourselves: Are these principles compatible with the "civil" taking of human life? Are these principles compatible with the very real risk of erroneously taking the life of an innocent neighbor? Can we credibly accept any criminal justice plan that does not commit to ending the death penalty for good?
    Martin O'Malley
    I believe the answer is clearly no. It is time that we, as a nation, abolish the death penalty for good.
    Our nation's legacy of slavery and racial injustice find continued offense in our use of the death penalty. Our death row population is more than 40% black -- nearly three times the proportion of the general population.
    Reforming our criminal justice system to save and redeem more lives is not as simple as changing just one thing. But we should be able to admit that we must do more of what works to save lives, and we should stop doing things that do not work.
    In study after study, in state after state, we see the same distressing pattern. The death penalty does not deter crime. It does not even save us money. In fact, the death penalty actually costs states more than a life sentence does, because of an endless appeals process that tears at the hearts of victims' surviving family members.
    The vast majority of executions on this planet take place in just a handful of countries: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, China and the United States of America. Our country does not belong in the company of these nations on matters of criminal justice and equal rights under the law.
    The longer we continue to support this expensive and failed policy, the more we fall short of our values as a people -- and the more money we waste that could be spent actually saving lives.
    My own personal and longstanding opposition to the death penalty is shaped by deep belief in the principles of our nation and by my faith. I don't agree with the official Church position on every public issue, but I believe that perpetuating the death penalty strikes at the heart of the nation we should aspire to be -- one that's more just.
    The reality, though, is that we will not abolish the death penalty in America by following polls. It requires leaders who are willing to call us forward based on the deepest principles we share as a nation.
    A policy that is as shameful and immoral as the death penalty is not about states' rights -- it is about human rights.
    Secretary Hillary Clinton's failed logic on this issue -- continuing to support the death penalty as a state right that should not be abolished -- rings all too familiar to me. My advisers told me, as I took on the death penalty during my first year as governor in Maryland, that I was misguided. They encouraged me not to take up this cause, to instead focus on issues that poll better and are more popular.
    I didn't listen because my faith and my own experience taught me otherwise. As mayor of Baltimore, I understood that every minute and dollar spent on the death penalty could have been used to protect and redeem lives. As a prosecutor, I saw that the death penalty's racial legacy could not be excused or explained away -- and that too many innocent lives were being taken by this profoundly flawed practice.
    So I decided to fight for the death penalty's repeal. We didn't succeed the first time -- or the second. But after four years of making our case to the people of Maryland, we finally banned the death penalty on our third try.
    Now, in this election, our leaders should be honest with themselves -- and with voters. The death penalty is a failed and immoral policy. But while we can admit our mistake and work to become a more perfect nation, we need leaders who have the courage to act. We must repeal the death penalty under federal statutes, including the 1994 crime bill, and every candidate for president should say where they stand on this issue.
    The choice is really ours. We know what works. We know what does not work. And we know that the way forward is always found through greater respect for the human dignity of all.