States Consider Abolishing the Death Penalty to Cut Costs

The debate over the death penalty has raged for decades: during the 1970s the U.S. Supreme Court actually declared the death penalty unconstitutional and then reversed itself just a few years later.

Since that time, the debate has remained heated; scores of innocent men have been released after years on death row, exonerated by DNA or other evidence. In 2003, the outgoing Illinois governor commuted the sentences of hundreds of death row inmates.

The argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty usually focuses on policy issues: the high probability of error, the disparity with which the death penalty has been applied to certain racial minorities, the availability of adequate legal services, and the question as to whether a civilized society should be in the business of killing its own.

Recently, however, the debate has shifted. Several states are once again considering repealing death penalty laws, but it isn’t in the interest of human life. They’re looking to save some money.

Late last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley appeared before the state Senate and pitched an idea to abolish the death penalty in the state. The state budget is tight, and the governor saw it as an opportunity to save money.

The measure failed, but the rationale was interesting, and it isn’t unique. Lawmakers in other states have had the same idea.

Death penalty cases are an extreme financial burden to states, often costing millions of dollars to prosecute. O’Malley says that homicide cases in which the death penalty is not sought cost the state two-thirds less, on average. In several other states, lawmakers have introduced bills to end the death penalty as a means to free up much needed cash.

The trials in death penalty cases are generally lengthy and often utilize more criminal defense attorneys and costly expert witnesses than non-death penalty homicide cases. Beyond the trial, the appeals process can take years and use up more of the state’s resources.

Bills to repeal the death penalty are being pushed by legislators in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire. In each of these states, the argument to abolish death sentences is based on a budget crisis.

Legislators have taken the position that death penalty trials are largely a waste of money, considering that many death row inmates die in prison before being executed or have the sentences overturned. In a large number of cases, millions spent by states pursuing the death penalty is lost. In the end, the offenders effectively end up serving life sentences, rather than being put to death.

When the cost and the reality of the punishment are broken down in practical terms, even those who support the death penalty may be coming to realize that, in most cases, states can save a lot of money by not pursuing the death penalty.

The move to repeal the death penalty has not come without opposition, as evidenced by the Maryland results. Those in favor of the death penalty say that by abolishing it, states will see an increase in violent crime.