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February 18, 2009

Economic crisis gives death penalty opponents an unexpected opportunity

Some cash-strapped state governments have come up with a new way to save money: by shutting down death row. AFP, February 17:
In an unexpected twist to the economic crisis, several US states are weighing whether to abolish the death penalty as the execution process proves too great a drain on dwindling resources.

Death penalty laws remain on the books of 36 of the 50 US states, and capital punishment is supported by some two-thirds of the American public.

But across the nation, states as diverse and far-flung as Montana, Kansas, New Mexico and Maryland are among those actively considering abolishing capital punishment in a bid to overcome ballooning budget shortfalls.

"It is quite unusual that we've seen this blossoming of state legislative activity this year. It's because there is a renewed inspection of the death penalty," Steve Hall, director of the anti-capital punishment group Standdown, told AFP.

Most of the states involved in the move are those which have only executed a few people -- five or less -- in the past 30 years since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. But "state legislators across America seem to be re-examining the death penalty," he said.

The financial savings could be considerable.

Carrying out the death penalty can leave a state footing a bill that is 10 times higher than for an inmate serving life imprisonment.

On top of a complex and lengthy process, appeals can last years and the prisoners are often represented by lawyers paid by the state.

Guarding death rows and death chambers are also costly items on a state's budget.
It is true that the death penalty process is horribly wasteful and inefficient -- decades of seemingly endless appeals can be quite a drain on the public treasury. But instead of finding ways to reduce the waste and inefficiency, legislators want to give up the process completely.

Something else is going on here.

The article excerpt shows that most of the states considering the abolition of the death penalty hardly ever carry it out in the first place, so it seems clear that the sentiment against capital punishment itself is already strong in those states.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the economic crisis is providing political cover for death penalty opponents to end the practice altogether.

Public support for the death penalty remains strong. Public demand for the government to fix the economic crisis is also strong.

Just about every other constituency of the left has found a way to use the current chaos to their advantage. Death penalty opponents would be foolish to pass up an opportunity like this.

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