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The left's austerity strategy for the death penalty

In an age when trimming budgets and reducing deficits has become politically popular, some liberals are brewing a new strategy on old issues.

In an age when trimming budgets and reducing deficits has become politically popular, some liberals are brewing a new strategy on old issues. Democrats and left-leaning groups are increasingly trying to use austerity arguments to pass their progressive agendas.

Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has long sought to have the death penalty abolished in his state. As a Roman Catholic, he has used a moral argument against the death penalty in the past. But now he is emphasizing the financial benefits of making the maximum sentence a life in prison without parole.

"The death penalty is expensive and it does not work and we should stop doing it,” he said in January.

He pushed a bill to repeal the death penalty in 2009 but the votes fell short. On Friday, the Maryland state Senate once again began debating a bill to repeal capital punishment in the state. It needs 24 votes to pass and 26 senators have already said publicly that they support the repeal.

Rather than funnel all of their focus into moral and social arguments, the bill’s supporters have been making their point partly in economic terms. The cost of prosecuting a death row case in Maryland can be as much as three times what it costs for a case seeking a life sentence without parole.

A study by the Urban Institute in 2008 found that the average cost to taxpayers for one death sentence was $3 million, about $1.9 million more than it cost for a case when the death penalty wasn’t sought. These numbers include the criminal investigation, trial costs, appeals, and incarceration. A New York Times graphic explains the stark contrast in savings from the study.

For elected officials who can’t be tough enough on crime, NYU law professor Bryan Stevenson said, “you need a narrative that allows people to retreat from that and cost is just a very effective one.”

On Sunday’s Up with Chris Hayes, Stevenson also addressed the fears of many voters that abolishing capital punishment could lead to a higher crime rate, explaining that the economic arguments could also benefit public safety:

“Maryland’s bill actually will give money and resources to the families of people who’ve lost loved ones. California’s bill was actually directly aimed at helping to solve the 34% of homicides that aren’t resolved in an arrest, 46% of rapes that aren’t resolved in an arrest, mostly in poor and minority communities. I think if you’re concerned about public safety, these economic arguments actually make links that we have to make.”

If it passes, Maryland will be the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty, after New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Illinois, and Connecticut.

The last time Maryland executed a prisoner was in 2005. Capital punishment there has been on hold since 2006 when the state’s top court ruled that a legislative committee did not properly approve lethal injection rules. The state currently has five men sitting on death row.

In recent decades, public support for the death penalty went up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but since then it has eroded very slowly, according to Gallup.

While they acknowledged the financial advantages, the Up with Chris Hayes panelists emphasized that decades of talking about the death penalty’s moral and social implications cannot be ignored.

“If the economic argument is the one that tips the scales, then I need not worry that we haven’t couched the debate enough in moral terms,” said Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project. “You keep your eyes on the prize.”

Stevenson added, “I don’t actually think that the economic arguments would be effective today if we hadn’t shown over the last 15 years that we’re putting a lot of innocent people on death row.”

With additional reporting by Todd Cole.