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February 25 2009 | UNITED STATES

USA

Citing cost, states consider halting death penalty

 
printable version

The New York Times

February 25, 2009

Citing Cost, States Consider Halting Death Penalty

By IAN URBINA

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — When Gov. Martin O’Malley appeared before the Maryland Senate last week, he made an unconventional argument that is becoming increasingly popular in cash-strapped states: abolish the death penalty to cut costs.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. “And we can’t afford that,” he said, “when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime.”

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.

Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.

Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least four other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.

The economic realities have forced even longtime supporters of the death penalty, like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, to rethink their positions.

Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, has said he may sign a bill repealing capital punishment that passed the House last week and is pending in a Senate committee. He cited growing concerns about miscarriages of justice, but he added that cost was a factor in his shifting views and was “a valid reason in this era of austerity and tight budgets.”

Capital cases are expensive because the trials tend to take longer, they typically require more lawyers and more costly expert witnesses, and they are far more likely to lead to multiple appeals.

In New Mexico, lawmakers who support the repeal bill have pointed out that despite the added expense, most defendants end up with life sentences anyway.

That has been true in Maryland. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group, found that in the 20 years after the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 162 felony-homicide convictions, securing it in 56 cases, most of which were overturned; the rest of the convictions led to prison sentences.

Since 1978, five people have been executed in Maryland, and five inmates are on death row.

Opponents of repealing capital punishment say such measures are short-sighted and will result in more crime and greater costs to states down the road. At a time when police departments are being scaled down to save money, the role of the death penalty in deterring certain crimes is more important than ever, they say.

“How do you put a price tag on crimes that don’t happen because threat of the death penalty deters them?” said Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County, Md., who opposes the repeal bill.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization in Sacramento that works on behalf of crime victims, called the anticipated savings a mirage. He added that with the death penalty, prosecutors can more easily offer life sentences in a plea bargain and thus avoid trial costs.

But Eric M. Freedman, a death penalty expert at Hofstra Law School, said studies had shown that plea bargaining rates were roughly the same in states that had the death penalty as in states that did not.

“It makes perfect sense that states are trying to spend their criminal justice budgets better,” he said, “and that the first place they look to do a cost-benefit analysis is the death penalty.”

States are looking elsewhere as well.

Last year, in an effort to cut costs, probation and parole agencies in Arizona, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey and Vermont reduced or dropped prison time for thousands of offenders who violated conditions of their release. In some states, probation and parole violators account for up to two-thirds of prison admissions each year; typical violations are failing drug tests or missing meetings with parole officers.

As prison crowding has become acute, lawsuits have followed in states like California, and politicians find themselves having to choose among politically unattractive options: spend scarce tax dollars on expanding prisons, loosen laws to stem the flow of incarcerations, or release some nonviolent offenders.

The costs of death penalty cases can be extraordinarily high.

The Urban Institute study of Maryland concluded that because of appeals, it cost as much as $1.9 million more for a state prosecutor to put someone on death row than it did to put a person in prison. A case that resulted in a death sentence cost $3 million, the study found, compared with less than $1.1 million for a case in which the death penalty was not sought.

In Kansas, State Senator Carolyn McGinn introduced a bill this month that would abolish the death penalty in cases sentenced after July 1. “We are in such a dire deficit situation, and we need to look at things outside the box to solve our budget problems,” said Mrs. McGinn, a Republican. Kansas is facing a budget shortfall of $199 million, and Mrs. McGinn said that opting for life imprisonment without parole rather than the death penalty could save the state over $500,000 per capital case.

But skeptics contend that prosecutors will still be on salary and will still spend the same amount, just on different cases. In Colorado, lawmakers plan to consider a bill this week that would abolish the death penalty and use the savings to create a cold-case unit to investigate the state’s roughly 1,400 unsolved murders. While the police must continue investigating these cases, there is no money in the budget for that. A group of families who lost relatives in unsolved murders has lobbied lawmakers on the bill.

In Virginia, competing sentiments are evident in the legislature.

While lawmakers have proposed allowing prison officials to release low-risk offenders up to 90 days before the end of their sentences, citing a potential saving of $50 million, they are also considering expanding who is eligible for capital punishment to people who assist in killings but do not commit them and to people convicted of murdering fire marshals or auxiliary police officers who are on duty.

It is considered unlikely, however, that Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who opposes capital punishment, would sign such a bill.

In 2007, New Jersey became the first state in a generation to abolish the death penalty.

That same year, a vote in Maryland to abolish the death penalty came up one vote short of passing. In December, however, a state commission on capital punishment recommended that Maryland abolish the death penalty because of the high cost and the danger of executing an innocent person.

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