No person in Idaho has been sentenced to die since 2004, but this hiatus may come to a close as some prosecutors seem poised to pursue new capital cases. Given the realities, it seems fitting to once again reevaluate Idaho’s current death penalty. When examining the effectiveness of capital punishment in Idaho, one must objectively measure the system’s efficiency in terms of risks, costs, and its ability to meet its purported goals.
Idaho has a poor record with the death penalty. Three people have been executed, and one has been released from death row because he was wrongly convicted. Based on this error rate, the risks are clearly far too high, especially when you consider that we are talking about people’s lives, but unfortunately these dangers cannot be sufficiently mitigated. Wrongful convictions often stem from mistaken eyewitness testimony, reliance on unscientific forensic methods, and official misconduct. Due to the human element, wrongful convictions can and do still happen.
In addressing the Idaho death penalty’s financial cost, a 2014 study found that Idaho’s capital cases are far more expensive and take much more time to resolve than similar non-capital cases. The study measured the death penalty’s costs in time rather than dollars. Researchers found that capital trials took 20.5 months to reach a conclusion while non-capital trials took 13.5 months. The appeals also require more time too. The State Appellate Public Defenders office spent about 44 times more hours on a typical death penalty appeal than on a life sentence appeal (almost 8,000 hours per capital defendant compared to about 180 hours per non-death penalty defendant).
Time is money. All the extra time spent on death penalty cases means higher costs to the state. Data gathered from neighboring states with the death penalty help quantify these costs. In Utah, for example, each death penalty case costs around $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole case. Washington state faces a similar problem according to a Seattle University study that found that each death penalty case costs an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million versus $2.01 million). This is taxpayer money not well spent.
One of capital punishment’s alleged primary goals is to deter future crime, but does it actually achieve this goal in reality? In fact, recent studies find little evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against crime. The murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty, and the gap has grown since 1990. Furthermore, a 2008 poll of 500 police chiefs in the United States found that police chiefs ranked the death penalty last when asked to name what was “most important for reducing violent crime.” Again, we see that the death penalty falls short of living up to its purpose, but it fails in other ways too.
The death penalty is a lengthy process. It is as such because a life is on the line. Therefore, mistakes cannot be made. Although necessary for ensuring accuracy, this lengthy process only prolongs the grief and suffering felt by victim’s families. Capital punishment is often seen as a means of attaining retribution for the crimes committed against a family’s loved one. However, the long and stressful process ultimately delays the victim’s family’s efforts to begin healing. Additionally, because the death penalty is pronounced to be reserved only for truly ‘heinous’ crimes, a lesser sentence sends the message to victim’s families that their loss is not as important as others.
It is evident that the death penalty wastes taxpayer money and falls short of meeting its primary goals – deterring crime and helping victims’ families. In referring to their pledge for fiscal responsibility, the Idaho GOP platform states, “Programs which are not cost effective or have outlived their usefulness should be terminated”. The death penalty in Idaho certainly fits that description, and needs to go.