In the shadow of Idaho’s June 12 execution of Richard Leavitt, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho engaged with Gem State citizens July 11 concerning the constitutionality of capital punishment in the 21st century. Advocates also discussed Idaho's protocols concerning lethal injections and what they called an "evolving standard of decency."
“Right now, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding weather or not the policies that the Idaho Department of Correction have are constitutional under First Amendment free speech guidelines, so this topic is very relevant,” said Monica Hopkins, ACLU executive director.
Approximately 50 individuals participated in the midday event at the Boise offices of the Idaho State Bar, highlighted by an address from Tanya Greene, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel.
“Five years ago, we had 12 states that were repeal or abolition states and now we have 17 states without the death penalty,” said Greene. “We won repeals in five states in the past five years.”
Execution-related Issues specifically being targeted by the ACLU include drug protocol issues, lethal drug availability and, according to Greene, innocent individuals on death row.
“To be charged, convicted, sentenced to death and put on death row for 10, 15, even 20 years, and then be exonerated—it’s a concern,” said Greene. “That’s really a system that is not working the way it should work.”
Currently, there are 3,170 American men and women on death row. Since 1976, 1,300 people have been executed but 140 people have been released from death row, having been exonerated due to DNA or confessional evidence.
“There are dozens more who are presumably innocent, but the type of evidence is not decisive,” said Greene. “I would say that the number is much higher, and that should definitely be a concern.”
Greene also pointed to the skyrocketing costs of prosecution, incarceration and constitutionally required appeals involved with capital punishment, and how they compare to life in prison without parole.
“Despite what intuitively seems to flow, it is less expensive to permanently incarcerate someone than it is to charge, try, convict, sentence and execute to death,” said Greene. “
According to Greene, the costs of capital proceedings through execution are two to three times more than permanent imprisonment, and states with limited funding need to decide where their budget is most effectively utilized.
“You make a decision—are we going to pay for schools, keep the public library open, are we going to provide social services or are we going to try and kill people,” said Greene. “It is a failed government program. If any other government program operated at this type of loss in terms of money, it would never happen.”
Greene also pointed to Idaho's recent executions, two in the past eight months.
“Given these recent two executions in the state, Idaho in fact seeks to join the heavy-use states, the states that are executing,” she said.
Greene questioned the audience, asking for their ideas on how to get local attention and how to encourage Idahoans to question capital punishment.
“My sense is that there isn’t even question among a huge number of the population,” she said. “That this is something that is of concern.”
Those in attendance suggested educating community members on the high costs associated with capital punishment, more activism and consideration of more-humane approaches.
“It is something to think about in terms of what it does to the community to be a community of people that are killing their own citizens instead of a community of people that have concern about the process,” said Greene.