Just how much does it cost to sentence someone to death?

Just how much does it cost to sentence someone to death?
File PHOTO -- (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A new report from Idaho's state auditors shows that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty.

But the Office of Performance Evaluations also found that the state's criminal justice agencies don't collect enough data to determine the total cost of the death penalty. The report was presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Wednesday by Hannah Crumrine and Tony Grange.

Idaho is one of 32 states with the death penalty, but two of those states - Oregon and Washington - have moratoriums on executions. Idaho has executed 29 people since 1864, but only three since 1977. Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1944, Paul Ezra Rhoades was executed in 2011 and Richard Leavitt was executed in 2012.

It's difficult to determine just how much imposing the death penalty costs, Crumrine told the committee, in part because most of the needed data is unavailable. Law enforcement agencies typically don't differentiate between the costs of investigating death penalty murder cases and non-death penalty murder cases, and jail and prison staffers don't track the transport costs to bring a condemned prisoner to court cases versus a regular prisoner.

The researchers were able to determine some costs, however: Eleven counties have been reimbursed more than $4.1 million for capital defense costs since 1998, and the state appellate public defender's office has spent nearly half a million dollars on death penalty cases between 2004 and 2013.

The Idaho Department of Correction spent more than $102,000 on executing Leavitt and Rhoades.

In any case, it's clear that death penalty cases cost more than sentencing an offender to life without parole, according to the report, in part because it takes longer for the appeal process to come to an end in death penalty cases.

And the ultimate penalty is seldom imposed: The report found that of the 251 first-degree murder cases filed from 1998 to 2013, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 42 and it was imposed in just seven cases.

Of the 40 people sentenced to death in Idaho since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, 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.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote a letter responding to the report, stating that he believes state agencies have been diligent in accounting for and containing costs. Otter wrote that though the report raises the question of whether tax dollars are spent wisely on capital punishment, he continues to support the death penalty laws.

"The Idaho Department of Correction in particular has been exemplary in its duty to responsibly carry out death sentences," Otter wrote. "... And while your report raises and then leaves open the policy questions of whether tax dollars are wisely spent on death penalty cases, let me leave no doubt about my own continuing support for our existing laws and procedures."