Budget Shortfall Snarls Judicial Systems

In Pennsylvania, a cost-saving exercise in private prisons has gone terribly wrong—two judges pleaded guilty Thursday to fraud after taking money in exchange for rulings that sent kids to a certain privately-run detention facility. Investigators now are trying to figure out whether and to what extent innocent young men and women were jailed in the scheme.

In Virginia, an untimely effortby Republican lawmakers to expand the death penalty in the Commonwealth faces a veto from Governor Timothy M. Kaine. Among the many other arguments against the measure, no doubt Gov. Kaine will point to the fact that capital cases are tremendously more expensive to the state than are cases which result only in the possibility of a life sentence without parole. Here's how the Death Penalty Information Center's Richard Dieter calculates it:

"A Maryland study concluded that the cost was about $37 million per execution. In Florida, the estimate was about $24 million per execution. In California, they are spending about $138 million per year on the death penalty. Considering that they only have one execution every two years, that amounts to a cost of over $250 million per execution."

In California, the prisons are so overcrowded and dangerous that federal judges in that state are preparing a ruling that would require state officials to let certain prisoners free or build new prisons. Before the federal judiciary got involved, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had tried to release about 22,000 non-violet inmates only to be rebuffed by legislators. Those legislators now may have to relent.

In Massachusetts on Monday, the Chief Justice of the state's Supreme Court, Margaret H. Marshall, will deliver an important speech to the American Bar Association about the crumbling nature of state court systems. Good for her. All across the country, states struggling with huge budget shortfalls are not just tinkering with their justice systems—they are contemplating drastic changes.

In the coming weeks and months, public officials from sea to sea will have to make tough choices on sensitive law and justice issues. And the very people who typically protest cost-cutting measures like the early release of prisoners, or the reduction of criminal sentences, or the de-criminalization of certain crimes (like marijuana possession), or the reduction of capital cases, are now the ones begging loudest to cut costs. Wouldn't it be ironic if budget shortfalls do for the death penalty and prison reform what decades of enlightened jurisprudence could not?

Andrew Cohen is a CBS News legal analyst.