This week, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty released a statement signed by over 250 conservative and libertarian leaders from across the country, calling on “fellow conservatives to reexamine the death penalty and demonstrate the leadership needed to end this failed policy.”
Last summer, the federal government announced it will resume executions after a 16-year hiatus. This happened despite the fact that conservatives in the states have been moving in the opposite direction for some time.
There’s really nothing conservative about the death penalty. If you believe in a limited government, individual liberty, protecting the sanctity of human life, or fiscal responsibility, the death penalty will not check your boxes.
The data around the operation of the death penalty is indefensible. We know the death penalty is not a deterrent. We also know it is the most expensive part of the criminal justice system on a per offender basis and that 70 percent of its costs come from the trial alone – meaning shortening the appellate process would not make it any more cost effective.
What do those facts add up to? Sunk costs that don’t make us safer. Wasted resources that would be much better directed towards solving more crimes or on programs that actually work to prevent violence. Worse public safety outcomes.
Certainly not fiscal conservatism.
We also know the system is crawling with corruption, innocence issues, arbitrariness, socioeconomic and racial bias, and secrecy. You know, the markings of most government programs. But in this scenario we’re messing with life and death.
For anyone who claims to care about the sanctity of human life, the fact that one person has been exonerated from death row for every nine executions should be enough to call for a halt on capital punishment. The reality is we execute innocent people, and the government will continue to do so as long as this practice is allowed.
The statistics also show plainly that a person’s ability to hire an attorney, the zip code where the crime was committed, and the race of the victim are the leading factors in determining who gets the death penalty.
On death row, you will almost exclusively find poor people, many of whom have severe mental illnesses and traumatic backgrounds, and you will find a disproportionate amount of people of color. The nature of the crime itself has very little to do with the sentence at all.
Anyone who has spent time working around the criminal justice system can attest to all these problems and more. And it’s led many in government to continually seek ways to limit the public’s knowledge of the process.
Look at lethal injections. Plenty of legislators sponsor bills to block public knowledge of the process, and they’ll say it’s to protect the companies that supply the drugs from public condemnation. But these actions are really intended to prevent drug suppliers themselves from being aware their products are in the possession of executioners.
The reality is the majority of the world sees capital punishment as a human rights violation – the U.S. is the only western country to still use it. Couple that with numerous botched executions, and the ongoing problems with innocence and bias in the system, and you see why drug manufacturers actually ban the usage of their products in executions.
But states have been relentless in seeking loopholes around the wishes of the suppliers, often using subterfuge to obtain the cocktails, or using sketchy compounding pharmacies that place the general public at a health risk.
Not only that, but states have increasingly made it more difficult for jurors to witness executions, or have limited the aspects of the process that witnesses are able to view. If the public were to learn about the inner workings of the death penalty, it’s a given that the few shreds of support remaining would quickly evaporate.
And even without a spotlight on the significant controversies in the system, conservatives across the country have been steadily killing off the death penalty since the turn of the millennium.
In 2019, 11 states saw Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty. New Hampshire’s bill became law, where many conservatives stuck to their guns and overrode a Republican governor’s veto. Wyoming’s bill sailed through the house with overwhelming conservative support and fell only a few votes shy in the senate.
Over the past year, Washington’s Supreme Court banned the death penalty, and California issued a moratorium on executions. Red states like Utah, Ohio, and Louisiana all looked poised to confront their systems within the next couple of years.
Combine those factors with a 60 percent decrease in new death sentences since 2000 and the fact that only eight states carried out executions over the past two years, and the picture is clear – the death penalty is on its way out.
And that’s what makes the federal government’s announcement so odd, so out of touch. Crime has fallen in the absence of executions and so has support for the process.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.