The affluence of the United States and the various States has allowed us to spend a great deal of money on the criminal justice system. Now, we have a downturn in our economy causing States to run massive budget shortfalls. As anyone knows, this always leads to a cutback in "alternative" programs, meant to divert people out of the criminal justice system. Of course, there are other things which affluence has allowed us to impose upon the criminal justice system: indigent defense, expensive death penalty cases, high imprisonment rates, etc.
Of the items listed above, the high imprisonment rate is the one which the one which we have already seen affected. We've all read the stories of judges and sheriffs discharging prisoners early because there's not enough space or money to incarcerate them.
Indigent defense is an ongoing problem. There has been a push for years to improve indigent defense. Obviously, indigent defense is not something which legislators are going to have as the top item of their list of things to do to satisfy their constituents. Still, as long as the country and the States were riding an economic high actual opposition to funding improvements faded. Now, with states such as Virginia facing billions of dollars of shortfall, it's unlikely that any legislator is going to be favorable to putting money into defending those accused of breaking the law.
Expensive Death Penalty Cases: This is the sacred cow. Under the rubric "death is different", more and more and more expensive requirements have been added to death penalty cases. Facing the finality of the punishment, it has been difficult for anyone to step up and say "no more." And, it is obviously part of the anti-death penalty stratagem to make death penalty cases financially untenable. Personally, I don't think the current economic downturn is enough to effect this one way or the other. Sure, anti-death penalty activists are reliably making noises about eliminating the penalty because it is too expensive, but it does not seem to be making too much headway. Nevertheless, the question at hand is, should the economy ever become so depressed that it cannot support the money we now spend on capital defense will we prune the defense or eliminate the punishment?