Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
posted Josh Goodman
There is new momentum against the death penalty in state government. Death sentences are declining, the New Jersey legislature passed a death penalty moratorium yesterday and a group of prosecutors is pushing a similar bill in California.
Most of the arguments about the death penalty haven't changed (Is it ethical? Is it a deterrent? Is it discriminatory?) So it is telling that legislative action in New Jersey came only after a report highlighted the financial costs of sentencing convicts to die.
The report, published by New Jersey Policy Perspective, said that the state, since 1982, has spent $253 million more on its death penalty system than it would have by sentencing prisoners to life in prison without parole. During that time, New Jersey didn't actually execute anyone, but the state's justice system piled up bills nonetheless.
No lawmaker would be so cynical as to say that an ethical decision as weighty as whether to put convicts to death should be based primarily on dollars and cents. It stands to reason, however, that if the death penalty is costing states money, the operative question ceases to be, "Is there a moral imperative against it?" and becomes, "Is there a moral imperative for it?" That shift in the burden of proof may be turning some policymakers against the death penalty.
Of course, if states wanted to save money, they could streamline their death penalty systems, cutting down on oversight and appeals. But, considering that more than 100 death row prisoners have been exonerated since 1973, and that Texas appears to have executed an innocent man in 1993, almost no one is willing to contemplate that option.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.