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The politics of crime

Ever since Michael Dukakis lost miserably to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election, Democrats have approached the death penalty issue with caution. Too much caution.

Maryland’s leaders had abolished the death penalty yet it took 19 months for Gov. Martin O’Malley, D, to fully expunge the ultimate punishment from the state: He announced Wednesday that he will commute the death sentences of the four inmates still on death row in Maryland, heroically revealing the news the day before a major holiday and only weeks before he leaves office. The four men will spend the rest of their lives in prison instead.

The move was obvious, even for death penalty supporters. With a 2006 court ruling, the legislature’s restriction on the death penalty and the state attorney general’s analysis of the legal landscape, the state didn’t have a functioning death penalty system and probably never would or could have executed these men. O’Malley made that official, providing everyone with certainty and curing the legal headache that this issue has induced over the past year and a half.

Why did it take so long? O’Malley is almost certainly running for president, and he probably wants to avoid Willie Horton-style attack ads, The Post’s Editorial Board has pointed out.

Yet the politics of crime have changed a lot in the past three decades. With crime rates down, conservatives and liberals both have been more receptive to arguments criticizing the cost and efficacy of harsh sentencing laws, mass incarceration and, to a certain extent, the death penalty. On either measure, the ultimate punishment fails, costing states too much money to administer without satisfactorily limiting the possibility of executing innocent people. Not to mention other moral considerations about state-sanctioned life-taking.

Whatever the reason, states have been condemning and killing fewer people. Fewer convicts were sentenced to die in 2014 than in any of the previous 40 years, according to a count from the Death Penalty Information Center. States executed fewer inmates in 2014 than they had in any of the previous 20 years.

These trends are good. Democrats — and Republicans, for that matter — should feel more comfortable saying so, and pushing the country further.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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