ANNAPOLIS, Md. — When Gov. Martin O’Malley appeared before the Maryland Senate last week, he made an unconventional argument that is becoming increasingly popular in cash-strapped states: abolish the death penalty to cut costs.
Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat and a Roman 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. “And we can’t afford that,” he said, “when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime.”
Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.
Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.
Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least four other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.
The economic realities have forced even longtime supporters of the death penalty, like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, to rethink their positions.
Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, has said he may sign a bill repealing capital punishment that passed the House last week and is pending in a Senate committee. He cited growing concerns about miscarriages of justice, but he added that cost was a factor in his shifting views and was “a valid reason in this era of austerity and tight budgets.”
Capital cases are expensive because the trials tend to take longer, they typically require more lawyers and more costly expert witnesses, and they are far more likely to lead to multiple appeals.
In New Mexico, lawmakers who support the repeal bill have pointed out that despite the added expense, most defendants end up with life sentences anyway.
That has been true in Maryland. A 2008 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy group, found that in the 20 years after the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 162 felony-homicide convictions, securing it in 56 cases, most of which were overturned; the rest of the convictions led to prison sentences.
Since 1978, five people have been executed in Maryland, and five inmates are on death row.