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 US 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,” said Steve Hall, director of the anti-capital punishment group Standdown.
Most of the states involved in the move are those that 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.
In Kansas, which has not carried out a single execution since 1976 but has nine men on death row, financial concerns trump other considerations.
Republican state Senator Caroline McGinn has proposed a bill banning the death penalty starting in July to reduce Kansas’ budget deficit.
“Cost is definitely an issue that legislators are looking at because of the severe economic recession [having] a significant impact on many states,” Hall said. “The state legislators are looking at ways to cut the funding, to pull themselves out of deficit and the high cost of the death penalty is absolutely something that they are looking at.”
Activists have calculated that in Kansas the cost of executing a prisoner is 70 percent more than keeping someone in prison. The bill for a death row inmate tops US$1.26 million, while for someone serving life imprisonment costs US$740,000, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said.
In New Mexico, politicians are hoping to pass a repeal law this year. The state, which has only executed one person in 30 years and has only two people on death row, could save US$1 million, observers say.
On Monday, Montana was debating a bill to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole, after years of failed efforts to repeal the law.
The northwestern state has only executed three people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. And only two inmates are currently housed on its death row, DPIC said.
Activists who have long fought to replace lethal injection, the most common method of execution, with life in prison, could finally see their efforts bear fruit. They maintain that public opinion is also changing.
Nebraska and New Hampshire lawmakers are also considering repealing the current laws, while Oklahoma and Utah are considering limits on the death penalty.
Maryland, which has carried out five executions since 1976, seems closest to abolishing the death penalty with the support of Governor Martin O’Malley. DPIC, figures show those five executions cost the state some US$37.2 million.