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Up With Chris Hayes
updated 3/3/2013 8:18:50 PM ET 2013-03-04T01:18:50

Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has long sought to have the death penalty abolished in his state, and 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.

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.

Video: The left’s austerity strategy

  1. Closed captioning of: The left’s austerity strategy

    >> think the programs to cut. they are advocating and marshalling the language and logic of austerity to advocate their goals. martin o'malley did that when he explained why he wants to a polish the state's death penalty .

    >> the death penalty is expensive and does not work and we should stop doing it. it's time to appeal and replace it with life without parole.

    >> prosecuting a death row case costs about three times as much as life without parole. on friday they began debating a bill that requires 24 votes to pass and 26 senators publicly to vote for him. maryland lawmakers do pass in part because advocates focus their message on the consequences of the death penalty . not just the death penalty , they became the first states to fully legalize marijuana. the tens of millions of dollars of tax revenue . the criminal justice reforms reigned in the complex of prudence that offers the means of tactical victories. that we are broke doesn't produce strategic cost. the professor at new york school of law and founder and executive director and nonprofit organization that focuses on discrimination and the justice system . the research director for the national priorities project and more transparency and the federal budget . the cofounder of presidente.org and contributor to the magazine, you are not speaking in your capacity of founder propertied here. i think this is interesting. they did this teaming up with them and you are operating out of alabama, a very conservative state where the politics are very intense. i have seen that firsthand. is that a means of making the arguments about the death penally reform in a place like alabama?

    >> i think it's necessary and i don't think it compromises anything. there costs to mass incarceration and the death penalty . some are moral and some are just. you want to accumulate the costs for those who have largely been indifferent to the excess and the death penalty . it's a necessary argument and i think it enhances those in california and trying to get a public appeal and the referendum. they organize the all-around cost. california will spend $200 million a year. that is insane.

    >> a billion dollars in the next five years and nobody will be executed. the question is, is it worth it? the reality is it doesn't give us a fair death penalty . it's a necessary and effective argument.

    >> this is to fill in the details on the spending in california , you can take a look at how that breaks down. federal appeals and state appeal. it's a staggering number.

    >> for advo cates it's necessary. i don't support violent crime. i don't think that's a good thing. too many of my clients have been victimized by a lack of services and lack of attention. so the resources can be deployed. maryland's bill can make money for the families of those who lost loved ones. california 's bill was aimed at helping to solve the 34% of homicides. the 46% of the rates that don't dissolve, mostly for the communities. if you are concerned about public safety , these economic arguments make links.

    >> it's not austerity politics, but rechannelling the investments.

    >> i agree. i want to ask the question you can't make victories that you have to make a strategic pivot. what is that on the death penalty .

    >> we have been talking about economic costs. the more complicated question is in the late 1980s when they said we are not going to abolish the death penalty . that was talking about juveniles and people with mental disabilities . that's a complicated question because they are trying to make it more palatable and that might sustain the death penalty . this is not that. this is really trying to get people to appreciate all of the cost and moral and political and all of those costs. there is not much to be lost.

    >> in colorado, i was struck by how fiscally focused that was. there was money for schools and you don't even know what it was. that was the advocates for legalization in colorado that it was a two-pronged message. they will tell you that the money argue am in the context of what we could use the money for in a state that doesn't well fund the schools, but coupled with that was the idea that if alcohol is legal, so should marijuana be legal. why would a more unsafe drug not be. they will tell you and what came out is you have to couple a cost argument and a financial cost with something else. people in america have shown a pension for being willing to spend and overspend on things that they believe is right. the best example of that, the iraq war . 1 trillion or $2 trillion. the country believed we should do it and cost wasn't an issue.

    >> that tends to be the case when we are talking about defense. austerity never seems to touch defense. somewhat remarkably.

    >> we are in a special moment. in april they will file taxes and 27 cents on every dollar will have been spend on the military. nobody looked at that and now americans are saying that's ridiculous. that crosses party lines . if you poll people, they want to cut about 18% from defense spending and washington hasn't yet gotten the memo.

    >> they have gotten the memo.

    >> just now starting to see changes.

    >> in this case i worry the most. obviously i have been around left politics since i was a wee little boy and it will be a great day when the military has a bake sale and the schools have all the money they need and there is too much money for the war. that has been around forever. politics in particular. in this moment it seems like we have this weird thing and we are endorsing austerity. it's happening where we say we can't afford this money. we have to let it cut down.

    >> for requires a complicated message. saying deficit reduction is not the most urgent priority. it electrics like we are here for the time being and we can make smart long overneeded cuts to the pentagon. yes, that will cost jobs, but government cuts will cut them and you get more bang for your buck from the pentagon or education sectors.

    >> it's not a don't spend. it's a spent differently.

    >> you focus on cost and such a focused way is devious. as far as the visionary you need to build to take us out of the massive crisis that we are now going to follow. when are talking about drug use , you are not talking about the criminals in the drug equation. who is making the profit from prisons? who is making the profit from policing. that's not part of the discussion.

    >> hold that thought. i want

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