Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another Victim of the Recession: The Death Penalty?

Citing Costs, States Consider End to Death Penalty:

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.

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.
Emphasis on the word "considering." I'll believe it when I see it, that get tough states like Virginia will actually start "releasing nonviolent offenders" and curbing the death penalty in order to save a buck.

Here in Georgia, we're not considering releasing anyone, but there is a move afoot under the Gold Dome to make Life Without Parole (LWOP) separate from death penalty trials. Under current Georgia law, prosecutors must seek the death penalty in order to obtain a LWOP sentence, which is often time consuming and costly to local DA's without the funds. In other words, it's the economy that is driving the sudden move away from death penalty trials.

Of course, only in a materialistic society such as ours would a debate concerning the efficacy of the death penalty come down to dollars and cents. And while opponents of the death penalty may indeed "welcome" the too-costly-in-a-recession-like-this argument, supporters scoff at such "savings" pleas.

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.
To put it another way, the pro-capital punishment side will always answer the cost argument with some version of "it doesn't matter what it costs," while the anti-capital punishment side will claim something like "we can save money" by eradicating it.

In the grand and ongoing debate over the efficacy of capital punishment, we should keep the focus on issues such as legality, deterrence and the morality of the death penalty. Reducing the argument to "saving a buck" trivializes the issue.

No comments: