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Death is Expensive

Study Says Death Penalty Costs the State Big Bucks
Gov. Martin O'Malley

By Lawrence Hurley | Posted 2/17/2009

Maryland's giant budget deficit may be Gov. Martin O'Malley's biggest problem, but it could help him achieve one of his other top targets this year: abolishing the death penalty.

Capital punishment has long been known as costly, a fact that could have greater significance than ever to lawmakers in Annapolis as the economy continues to deteriorate.

The Democratic governor, who has already introduced legislation to repeal the statute, faces a tough political battle, with lawmakers split on the issue. He may find some solace, however, in a 2008 report by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment.

The blue-ribbon panel of legal experts concluded that it costs significantly more to litigate a death-penalty case and to house inmates on death row than it does to litigate and imprison an inmate facing life without parole. It costs $1.1 million to prosecute a death-penalty eligible case in which the death penalty is not sought, compared with $3 million for a case in which the death penalty is sought, the commission reported.

The panel based much of its economic analysis on a study carried out by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Its economists concluded that the ongoing cost of death-penalty cases in Maryland prosecuted between 1978 and 1999, most of which have not resulted in an execution, will be upwards of $186 million.

In his State of the State speech in January, O'Malley made clear his views when he referred to the death penalty as "outdated, expensive, and utterly ineffective." Spokeswoman Christine Hansen says in an interview that the governor's long-held opposition to the death penalty goes way beyond concerns about cost, but she notes that the commission's conclusion about the expense of capital punishment "is part of the reasoning" for seeking to abolish it. "Of course, it will be part of the conversation" with lawmakers, Hansen adds.

Abolishing the death penalty would not resolve the state's $2 billion budget shortfall, but the Urban Institute study notes that it would allow the state not only to save money, but also to re-allocate resources for other purposes.

Supporters of the death penalty, including some members of the state commission, don't buy into that methodology, but John Roman, lead author of the Urban Institute report, leaps to its defense.

He says that state-funded defense attorneys now representing death-penalty inmates could instead work on other criminal matters within the state public-defender's office. "That's of substantial benefit to the state of Maryland," Roman says. The current economic climate can only help underline that argument, he says.

Savings would come from a variety of sources, reflecting the lengthy legal process that has to be navigated before an execution can go ahead. Even O'Malley's pro-death penalty predecessor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., presided over just two executions during his four years in office.

There are currently five inmates on death row, which is housed in the Supermax prison on East Madison Street in Baltimore. According to the 2008 report, it costs the state $68,000 a year to house them, compared with $38,140 for an inmate serving a life sentence.

That doesn't even touch upon the legal fees.

A death penalty-eligible trial requires more court time, more lawyers, and considerably more investigation into the background of the defendant than there would be in a non-capital case.

That's because, at the special penalty phase of such trials, the defense lawyers are required to present mitigating evidence, which often centers on tales of abuse and neglect from the defendant's childhood.

It's the defense lawyer's job to track down as much evidence along those lines as possible. Those sentenced to death then face a lengthy appeals process in both state and federal court.

Sen. Brian Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who chairs the key Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that is considering O'Malley's bill, says potential savings could help sway members of the General Assembly who are unsure how to vote. "There may be some folks who are in a quandary as to the morality of it and end up being persuaded by the cost argument," he says.

But Frosh, who opposes the death penalty, appears to have sympathy for his colleagues as they weigh what for most is primarily a moral question.

On Feb. 18, his committee held a lengthy hearing on the bill in which O'Malley and dozens of other interested parties testified. It remains unclear whether the committee will now vote on the legislation or whether it might instead go straight to a debate and vote before the full Senate. Supporters in favor of the ban prefer the latter option because in previous years similar efforts have died at the committee stage.

Whatever happens, Frosh warns death penalty opponents that they still face an uphill battle.

"It will be a close vote," he says.

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