Leo Morales: We need to stop wasting money on the death penalty

GUEST OPINION: JUSTICE SYSTEM

March 26, 2014 

A new report recently published by the state of Idaho shares a similar conclusion as other reports conducted across the country: The death penalty system is more expensive than life without parole. And though the report concludes that more data is needed to actually calculate a more detailed dollar figure per death row inmate, it confidently states that a more rigorous report "would likely have the same findings: death penalty cases are inherently more expensive."

It's obviously time for a moratorium on this costly and inhumane practice in Idaho and to begin studying the costs and impacts of life without parole: a harsher penalty, akin to a living death. Tax dollars can be used more wisely and more efficiently to deal with the ballooning costs of the criminal justice system, addressing the needs of victims' families, and immediately fixing Idaho's unconstitutional public defender system.

The report published by the Office of Performance Evaluations showed the Department of Corrections spent more than $270,000 for the last two executions. By reviewing the limited data available, taxpayers have paid at least $1.4 million on the death penalty. This, however, is not comprehensive, because the shocking finding of the new report is that our state government does not even know how much it is spending to kill people. Maryland and Utah did do comprehensive studies, which showed the death penalty costs to be more than a million dollars per execution. If costs are similar in Idaho, then the last two Idaho executions cost taxpayers more than $3 million.

While this report does not offer a detailed cost breakdown because our government is not even keeping track, national reports indicate that the majority of costs are incurred during trial, whether or not the defendant is sentenced to death. In addition, death sentences are often overturned or commuted. Of the 40 people who were originally sentenced to death in Idaho since the 1977 reinstatement, only 12 remain on death row, all with appeals. The others have had their sentences overturned on appeal or are no longer sentenced to death. The report also concludes that noncompliance with the Constitution is the most common reason a death sentence is changed to a life in prison.

It takes far more resources to handle a capital case compared to a life sentence. The state public defender's office reported an average of 7,918 billable hours per capital defendant and a total of 79,178 during a span of 13 years. Just for 10 defendants. Compare that to 16,980 of billable hours of litigation for 95 defendants with a life sentence at an average of 179 hours per defendant. The office has spent close to a half-million just to litigate capital cases.

These statistics show clearly just how inefficient our government has been in spending our tax dollars. Now more than ever, Idaho leaders should reconsider the death penalty and instead follow the trend of other states that have wisely chosen a different path. Funds that are spent on execution can be spent on victim services.

Policymakers have a responsibility to do better for Idahoans. This year they took some baby steps in addressing wasteful spending in probation and parole; now they need to reconsider the wasteful spending incurred by the arbitrary system of the death penalty. These dollars can be betters spent aiding victims' families, as well as starting the hard work of fixing our broken public defender system and getting smart on crime in Idaho.

Morales is the communications and advocacy director for ACLU of Idaho.

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