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Death penalty economics
Will tight budgets kill capital punishment in states where moral objections failed?
W

hat happened
Lawmakers in Maryland, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, and New Hampshire are arguing that their states should repeal the death penalty as a cost-cutting measure in a time of tight budgets. Capital punishment cases cost significantly more to prosecute than life-sentence cases. States are also looking at releasing nonviolent offenders to save on prison costs. (The New York Times)

What the commentators said
“The misery wrought by the recession is practically universal,” said Alexandra Gutierrez in The American Prospect online, but it won’t be all bad if it gets states to “adopt sounder legal policy.” Tough-on-crime measures like the death penalty cost a lot of money, but appear to yield few “substantive benefits.” Let’s hope the “financial argument” succeeds “where the ethical one has failed.”

That’s just it, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. Proponents of the fiscal argument, like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, were already opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds. But no matter how “just” O’Malley’s cause, the majority of his state—and the nation—backs capital punishment.

There’s another problem with the fiscal argument, said law professor Douglas Berman in Sentencing Law and Policy. The “states seriously considering death penalty repeals” have few death row inmates and fewer executions, so they don’t actually spend that much on capital punishment. Meanwhile, states with “bloated,” expensive capital punishment systems, like California, are cutting jobs instead.

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