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The Death Penalty Is Wasting Everyone's Time and Money In Idaho

The most Idaho-specific information in a new study on the costs of the death penalty? Just how rarely the state executes people.
Image: Leonardo Pires/Flickr

A lot of the news about the death penalty in America lately has revolved around how states are having difficulty getting the necessary drugs for lethal injections. However, in a cash-strapped time such as this, states are examining if its even worth their time and money to pursue the death penalty. Idaho is the latest state to find just how costly and time consuming the death penalty is, as compared to non-capital punishments.

A year ago, Idaho’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee approved a study to look at the structure, workings and cost of the death penalty. Apparently the year wasn’t enough time to collect information on how much the death penalty was costing Idaho specifically, so instead the report was a collection of information on other states, but with an examination of how much time Idaho was spending on the cases as well as how often capital cases in Idaho actually lead to an execution. They found that the death penalty was extremely time consuming—which translates to money-consuming for the state—and almost never leads to an execution.

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Much of the cost section focused on a 2008 study conducted by the Urban Institute on the state of Maryland, which has been called “the most rigorous cost study in the country”. The Urban Institute study estimated the costs of capital-eligible cases in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, compared to those costs with capital-eligible cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty. It found that the cost to taxpayers for capitally-prosecuted cases in Maryland from 1978 to 1999 was $186 million. Over those 22 years, Maryland only executed five people. If you’re doing the math, that’s $37.2 million per execution. The average cost of reaching a single death sentence was $3 million, or $1.9 million more than a non-death penalty case.

Much of this comes from a longer trial phase, longer and more extensive jury selection, more preparation, and so forth. Of the 251 defendants charged with first-degree murder in Idaho from 1998 to 2013, the state found that reaching a judgment of guilty or not took seven months longer for capital cases than for cases where the death penalty wasn’t being considered. Idaho's State Appellate Public Defender’s Office spent an average of almost 8,000 hours per defendant on death penalty appeals, compared to 180 hour per non-death penalty defendant.

Over that same time period, first-degree murder defendants were only sentenced to death three percent of the time. Even in cases where the death penalty was being sought, 83 percent of those defendants received a sentence other than death.

It remains to be seen what Idaho will do with this study that, when you look at it, just reiterated findings that were already accepted as the conventional wisdom. The most Idaho-specific information is just how rarely the death penalty is applied.

Expenses were cited as a reason for dropping the death penalty in New Mexico as well as Maryland, which dropped the death penalty in 2009 and 2013 respectively, and has been brought up even in conservative states such as Kansas and Nebraska. The death penalty has detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. The conservative case against capital punishment generally revolves around the death penalty’s expense in both time and state resources—which is corroborated by this report—but also how you can’t really trust the government to do anything right.

In Idaho, the state legislature may be beginning to consider the end of capital punishment as a way to cut down on expenses  if something this rarely used would even be missed. Idaho's report lays it pretty clearly: even having capital sentencing as option costs the state time and money—even if it barely ever leads to a death sentence.