Monday, March 31, 2014

The price of vengeance: evaluating the death penalty in Idaho

Posted By on Mon, Mar 31, 2014 at 11:24 AM

click to enlarge reuter.jpg

In my column in the print edition of the Inlander this week, I wrote about the Idaho Legislature’s unanimous decision to begin a $33 million, 5-year investment to reduce recidivism and save the state an estimated $288 million in prison costs. It’s a decision that’s good for Idahoans’ pocketbooks and our collective conscience. (The savings are found in part by ensuring penalties more closely match the crime committed.)

The investment was spurred by a fantastic study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council of State Governments. A new report suggests another step towards justice and away from expensive vengeance would be to eliminate Idaho’s death penalty.

Earlier this month, Idaho’s nonpartisan Office of Performance Evaluations released their findings that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty.

They were unable to find out exactly how much is saved because of a failure to track all the associated costs of carrying out capital punishment in Idaho. However, they report, the longer appeals process for death sentence cases makes it clear that Idaho would realize significant savings by ending the practice.

It’s a curious study and a part of me isn’t sure that it’s a good idea to be calculating the cost to society of legally killing people in dollars and cents. Still, it does raise a question: How much is vengeance worth? Specifically, how much more should we be willing to spend to try to execute someone rather than send him to prison forever?

I write “try to execute someone” because, for the most part, Idaho has been unable to carry out the vengeance it seeks.

More than $4.6 million has been spent in Idaho on capital defense costs since 1998. Presumably a similarly large sum has been spent on their prosecution. During that time, the death penalty was sought 42 times and imposed in only seven cases — and of course some of those cases are still up for appeal.

Since 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 40 people have been sentenced to death in Idaho. According to the Associated Press, of those “21 have had their sentences overturned on appeal or are no longer sentenced to death for other reasons, 12 are still appealing their cases and four died in prison. Just three were executed during that time span.”

Even if vengeance is desirable, that seems like a pretty bad return on investment. In most cases, we are likely spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve exactly the same result as we would have by asking for a life sentence originally.

Is it worth it? If you still say yes, at what price wouldn’t it be? How much should we be willing to raise taxes so that instead of locking up 40 people for life, we lock up 37 and kill three? How many teachers should we be willing to lay off? How many roads should go unplowed? How much is vengeance worth? ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, is the executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho. He has been active in protecting Idaho's environment, expanding LGBT rights and the Idaho Republican Party.

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