A growing number of conservatives want to abolish the death penalty, and they’re seeing success on the state level.
Once viewed as a liberal position, conservatives have started to reclaim opposition to the death penalty based on limited government power and shrewd economic fact.
“People have been against the death penalty for years, but didn’t have an outlet,” Marc Hyden, national coordinator of Concerned Conservatives Against the Death Penalty, said.
A project of the criminal-justice reform group Equal Justice USA, CCADP launched at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013 to nurture growing opposition to the death penalty on the Right.
“Conservatives believe in programs that are pro-life, fiscally responsible, and representative of America,” Hyden said.
For conservatives to live up to those principles, they’ll need to rethink their positions on crime and criminal justice, accounting for better police tactics and data.
CCADP seized the opportunity, launching operations before criminal justice reform became a broader issue. They aren’t alone, either. Now, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has a project devoted to “the conservative approach to criminal justice” and Rand Paul’s presidential campaign made forceful appeals about the need for criminal justice reform.
Public opinion seems to be receptive to the message. Support for the death penalty is at its lowest since the early 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center, and Hyden thinks that’s misleadingly high. Give the public the choice to keep the death penalty or repeal and replace it with something else, he says, and that could sway voters against the death penalty.
“We need to move away from a theoretical framework and into reality,” he said. When voters get to choose an alternative that could save money and deliver justice, minds will change. When Gallup asked whether a murderer should get the death penalty or imprisonment, the death penalty still won out, but an American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found a slight majority favored life imprisonment.
The conservative split on the death penalty, however, gives Republicans an opportunity to work with Democrats on the state level to abolish the practice. Democrat support has waned for the death penalty. As almost all executions are done on the state level, reform is most promising in states not dominated by Republicans.
Thirty-one states have the death penalty as a punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nebraska abolished it in 2015, but a referendum on whether the state should reinstate it will be on the ballot in November. Utah might lower that number to 30 states, as a bill to abolish the death penalty will be voted on this week in the statehouse.
For Hyden, the change on the state level isn’t a shock.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if one or two states repealed the death penalty this year,” he said.
Kansas and Montana are expected to be battlegrounds on the issue, and Florida overhauled its laws on the death penalty after the Supreme Court found their prior system unconstitutional.
To end the death penalty, however, CCADP needs to focus on Florida and other states like it. States with the death penalty rarely use it, or use it often. Since 1977, Texas conducted the most executions (524), followed by Oklahoma (112), Virginia (110), Florida (90), and Missouri (83). Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, and Montana, for instance, have only executed 13 people altogether.
The end of the death penalty isn’t inevitable, and many Republicans still uphold it as just and necessary.
“When we take the life of a heinous murderer and a repeat offender, it honors the lives of the people whose lives were taken by him,” Maryann Christensen, director of the Utah Eagle Forum, said before the Utah repeal bill passed out of a Senate hearing. Even Jeb Bush, who said he was “conflicted” over the death penalty, thought it could provide closure.
That honor and closure, however, comes at a cost. Death penalty cases, and keeping those convicted criminals on death row, is more expensive than life imprisonment. When state budgets are tight, fiscally conservative principles might outweigh a philosophical view on the death penalty.
But if that doesn’t end the death penalty, time might. Millennial Republicans are opposing the death penalty in larger numbers.
“They tend to be more skeptical, naturally, of government power,” Hyden said. Last August, the Kansas Federation of College Republicans added opposition to the death penalty to its platform.
“We started doing this before it was cool to talk about criminal justice reform,” Hyden said. “In the end … I don’t trust in our government to deliver mail properly.” Giving the government power to end a citizen’s life, then, is too much power. The chance of error, and the irreversible nature of the punishment, is too much to accept as a legitimate government action.
Hyden holds a minority view among conservatives, but he’s found fertile ground to debate and sway others that could make the death penalty a rarity, if not a banned punishment.