The Cost of Capital Punishment: Death-Penalty Opponents Are Using a New Argument for Tough Economic Times: That Capital Punishment Is Too Expensive

By Urbina, Ian | New York Times Upfront, April 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Capital Punishment: Death-Penalty Opponents Are Using a New Argument for Tough Economic Times: That Capital Punishment Is Too Expensive


Urbina, Ian, New York Times Upfront


CRITICAL THINKING

Capital punishment is included in one of the first written codes of law, King Hammurabi's code, from Babylonia, around 1750 B.C. It included the phrase "an eye for an eye."

* What does this phrase mean, and why might modern supporters of capital punishment invoke it? What are some arguments for and against the "eye for an eye" philosophy?

* Why do you think capital punishment has been in use for so long?

WRITING PROMPT

Research your state's current and past position on capital punishment (see Web Watch), and use your findings and information from the article to write an editorial for your local newspaper for or against the death penalty.

DEBATE

Support or refute: The death penalty's effectiveness in reducing serious crimes, like murder, outweighs its economic costs.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

The death penalty is sometimes applied to federal crimes like treason, terrorism, and espionage. Why do you think these crimes may be punishable by death?

Do you agree with those who say eliminating the death penalty will result in an increase in crime? Why or why not?

Are you surprised that the U.S. is one of the few industrialized democracies that still has capital punishment? Why do you think this is so?

What might account for changes over time in public support for the death penalty?

Why do states get to determine whether or not to use the death penalty?

FAST FACT

According to Amnesty International, in 2008, China had the most executions worldwide--1,718--followed by Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), and the United States 137).

WEB WATCH

www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

The Death Penalty Information Center provides state-by-state information regarding capital punishment.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley went to his state legislature in February and made an unconventional argument that is becoming increasingly popular in cash-strapped states: Abolish the death penalty to save money.

O'Malley, a Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. "We can't afford that," he said, "when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime."

Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty.

And last month, New Mexico became the most recent state to abolish the death penalty. Its Governor, Bill Richardson, who signed the measure despite having been a longtime supporter of capital punishment, said that cost was a factor in his decision.

Death-penalty opponents, who have long focused on questions of morality or justice, say they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.

Thirty-five states have the death penalty on their books; 15 now ban it, including New Mexico and New Jersey, which abolished it in 2007.

FEWER EXECUTIONS

Support among Americans for the death penalty seems to be fading. After years in which solid majorities supported capital punishment, a recent Gallup poll showed the nation about equally divided when life without parole is offered as an alternative.

The number of executions each year in the U.S. has dropped by more than half since its peak of 98 in 1999, to 37 in 2008. At the same time, the death penalty has come under increasing scrutiny. Exonerations of death-row inmates, based on DNA and other evidence, have led to charges that the death penalty is too severe--and final--punishment.

The courts also have narrowed the death penalty's scope. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded violates the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. …

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