A group opposing capital punishment is urging government officials to reassess the costs and benefits of the death penalty in light of America's economic troubles.
State and local governments facing dire budget crunches can realize substantial savings by replacing capital punishment with a regime that sentences the worst offenders to life in prison without parole, according to a report released Tuesday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
The number of death sentences handed down in the United States has dropped from roughly 300 a year in the 1990s to 115 a year more recently. Executions are falling off at the same rate, the report says.
In the meantime, some 3,300 inmates remain on death row.
Despite the report's findings, the death penalty has the support of most Americans. According to an October 2008 Gallup survey, 64 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. Thirty percent oppose it.
Only once in the past 70 years (in 1966-67) did more Americans oppose capital punishment than support it, the poll results show. In that time span, 47 percent opposed it, while 42 percent supported it.
A 2008 study in California found that the state was spending $137 million a year on capital cases. A comparable system that instead sentenced the same offenders to life without parole would cost $11.5 million, says the DPIC report, citing the study's estimates.
New York spent $170 million over nine years on capital cases before repealing the death penalty. No executions were carried out there.
Some officials may be tempted to try to cut capital-punishment costs, notes the DPIC report, but many of those costs reflect Supreme Court-mandated protections at the trial and appeals-court levels. "The choice today is between a very expensive death penalty and one that risks falling below constitutional standards," the report says.
Nationwide, the report estimates, at least $2 billion has been spent since 1976 for costs that wouldn't have been incurred if the severest penalty were life in prison. The figure is based on an estimate in a 1993 North Carolina study that found the average extra cost of a death sentence in this state was $300,000. The average extra cost of capital punishment is significantly higher in several other states like California, Florida, and Maryland, the report says.