RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On yesterday's program, we heard how the recession and skyrocketing costs were causing some states to rethink prison policies. Much the same thing is at work when it comes to capital punishment. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, concerns about cost are influencing the death penalty debate.

MARTIN KASTE: Viki Elkey is executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, though she seems to have worked herself out of a job, because New Mexico repealed its death penalty a few weeks ago after years of effort by people like her.

So what tipped the balance this year? It's hard to say, she says, but politicians did seem more attentive to the argument that the death penalty is too expensive.

Ms. VIKI ELKEY (Executive director, New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty): The cost issue has always been there, but of course it's been exacerbated this year because of the fact that the state was, you know, down $453 million.

KASTE: Elkey believes the cost issue gave some lawmakers a practical reason to reconsider the death penalty. Richard Dieter, who runs the Death Penalty Information Center — an anti-capital punishment group in Washington — agrees that cost can sway the debate.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Death Penalty Information Center): If it's just on, you know, gut and my morality versus your morality, the debate still gets stuck and is a stalemate. But as a pragmatic issue, this is a new way of looking at it.

KASTE: Repeal bills have advanced this year in Montana, Kansas, New Hampshire and Nebraska. And Maryland just passed new restrictions on when to use the death penalty. In all these states money was a big part of the debate. Death penalty trials cost more because jury selection takes longer and there's a separate sentencing phase. Add to that the cost of appeals and the fact that death row is more expensive than regular prison, and most studies conclude that capital punishment costs more than life in prison.

Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARTH (Justice for All): I think it's a rather crass way to make an argument.

KASTE: William Rusty Hubbarth is with the pro capital punishment group Justice for All. He says money is no reason to abolish the death penalty.

Mr. HUBBARTH: I think that's ludicrous, especially since the financial cost is created by the defense.

KASTE: Death penalty opponents are sensitive to this argument. Montana state Senator Dave Wanzenried got a repeal bill through the state Senate in part by being very careful not to play up the money angle.

State Senator DAVE WANZENRIED (Democrat, District 49, Montana): If you listen to people talk about the reasons — including my own — for reasons to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, it would be like fourth.

KASTE: And when Wanzenried does talk about the financial savings, he's quick to say that the money should go back into public safety.

The fact is, in most states, the death penalty is still pretty secure. In Montana, Wanzenried's repeal bill passed the Senate only to bog down in a House committee. That's been the pattern in a number of death penalty states - the cost issue has pushed repeal a little further through the process, but death penalty supporters - people like Montana state Senator Dan McGee - still have the political high ground.

State Senator DAN MCGEE (Republican, District 29, Montana): The death penalty is a needed instrument of justice. It ought not be used often. It should be used only in certain specific cases where it's very clear you have the right person and that an absolutely heinous crime has been done.

KASTE: And that's turning into a nationwide trend. While 35 states still have the death penalty on the books, they're actually executing far fewer prisoners — only 37 last year, that's two-thirds off the peak ten years ago. Death sentences are also down by half. And now that many states and counties are desperately strapped for cash, local prosecutors have even less incentive to opt for the expense of a death penalty trial.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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