More than at any time over the past 30 years, the future of capital punishment is in limbo, says the Associated Press. The Supreme Court will hear arguments soon in a momentous lethal injection case. While it's widely expected that executions will resume in some form afterwards, the moment gives Americans a chance to contemplate what would change if they stopped for good. States with many death-penalty cases would save millions of dollars now spent on legal costs in long-running appeals. Other savings would result in some states that spend far more per inmate for death row facilities than other maximum-security inmates.
Abroad, notably in Europe and Canada, America's image would improve in countries that abolished capital punishment decades ago and wonder why America remains one of only a handful of prosperous democracies that continue with executions. In the American public, reaction would be deeply divided. Advocates on both sides of the debate say it's likely the high court will offer some pathway for states to resume executions.
There have been 1,099 executions nationwide since executions resumed in the 1970s after a court-ordered halt, with a peak of 98 in 1999. The numbers have ebbed in recent years - there have been 42 this year - while more than 3,300 inmates populate death rows. The biggest savings would come from reduced legal costs. Because of drawn-out appeals, a typical death penalty case can cost from $1 million to $3 million, well above the typical cost of a lengthy life imprisonment. On average, it costs roughly $25,000 to house an inmate for a year, though maximum-security confinement can be more expensive.