When I told some of my friends that I would be going to the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to help launch Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), some were downright skeptical that anything good could come of that experience. The dominant assumption for years has been that, if you are conservative, you support the death penalty. Surely, CPAC—one of the largest gatherings of the year of conservatives from across the country—would not be the venue to share concerns about the death penalty, right?
CCATDP not only survived CPAC, but it was an overwhelming success. Time and again, CPAC attendees told us, “I thought I was the only conservative against the death penalty. Thank you for being here.” Though this response came as a shock to some of my friends, it should not be a surprise. The death penalty is contrary to fundamental conservative principles: a commitment to fiscal responsibility, limited government, and protecting the sanctity of human life. There is nothing conservative about capital punishment. It is a broken government program that wastes millions in taxpayer dollars, fails to reduce crime, and sometimes executes the innocent. Unsurprisingly, more conservatives are recognizing the death penalty’s abysmal track record and are taking the lead in efforts to end it.
Challenging Assumptions about Conservatives and the Death Penalty
For years, politicians on the right and the left have tried to use the death penalty for political gain. In response to public concern over crime, some politicians would champion the death penalty as a tough-on-crime response to violence. The individual who perfected this tactic was not a Republican, but a “double-death Democrat”—a supporter of abortion and the death penalty—Bill Clinton. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton highlighted his support for the death penalty in campaign ads and even suspended his campaign to sign the death warrant for Ricky Ray Rector, who suffered from a severe mental disability. (At his last meal, Rector told prison officials that he would save his dessert for later, not realizing there would be no later.)[i] Clinton then went on after his election to sign legislation greatly expanding the federal death penalty and shortening the appeals process in capital cases.
As Clinton’s example makes clear, Republicans hardly have been alone in supporting the death penalty. Still, the high rate of executions in the red South[ii] and stronger support for the death penalty among registered Republicans than registered Democrats[iii] lead some to conclude that capital punishment is a conservative institution. CCATDP’s primary purpose is to challenge this assumption and begin a dialogue among conservatives on this issue.
Fortunately, CCATDP’s work is not occurring in a vacuum, and changing attitudes among conservatives toward criminal justice policy have created a favorable climate for reexamining the death penalty. The tough-on-crime mindset prevalent in the 1990s, which led to the expansion of the death penalty, is no longer orthodoxy within the Republican Party. In fact, there has been a backlash from conservatives to many criminal justice policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, which have proven incredibly costly.[iv]
CCATDP’s work fits directly into this broader trend in the conservative world of taking a hard look at failed criminal justice policies. A criminal justice system must hold individuals accountable, protect the innocent, be responsive to the needs of victims, spend taxpayer dollars responsibly, and demonstrate effectiveness in reducing crime. On all these fronts, the death penalty has been an abysmal failure:
The government cannot be trusted to apply the death penalty to the worst of the worst. Similar crimes often are treated differently. Race and geography play a role in deciding which murders are prosecuted as death penalty cases.[v]
The death penalty prolongs the legal process, which can inflict harm on murder victims’ families.[vi]
Since 1973, 142 individuals in the US have been sentenced to death and later set free after evidence was discovered proving they were wrongfully convicted, often decades after they were sentenced to die.[vii]
Study after study in states around the country finds that the death penalty wastes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.[viii]
There is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime—states with the death penalty have higher murder rates on average than states without it.[ix]
Given the abundance of evidence exposing the ineffectiveness of the death penalty, it is becoming more difficult for politicians to sell the death penalty as a tough on crime policy that works. Conservatives, in particular, increasingly see the death penalty as another failed government program that wastes taxpayers’ money.
More Conservatives Embrace a Consistent Life Ethic
Beyond the death penalty’s policy failures, there is a deeper motivation driving more conservatives to question the death penalty. A consistent life ethic is enjoying broader appeal, which has led more conservatives to reject the death penalty. The Catholic Church has led the way in calling for consistency in opposing all threats to life—abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and unjust war. These positions make some uncomfortable because they do not neatly fit within the platform of either of the two dominant US political parties.
Faced with this dilemma, more conservative Catholics are choosing the Church’s position over their party’s platform. Mike Janocik, a longtime pro-life activist in Kentucky and supporter of CCATDP, recently explained his change of mind at CatholicVote.org: “If all life is valuable, how can we justify taking life through executions when other means can protect society? Moreover, how can we justify a system of capital punishment that makes mistakes and sometimes threatens innocent life? As someone who deeply values the sanctity of human life and has dedicated myself to protecting life, I no longer could ignore the grave concerns raised by capital punishment.”[x]
The consistent life ethic also is attracting some conservative Protestants. One recent example of this quiet but real shift comes from South Dakota. Pastor and Republican State Representative Steve Hickey changed his mind on the death penalty and explained this shift in a recent sermon. He went through the many compelling policy arguments to end capital punishment. At the end of the day, however, the issue came down to following Christ’s teaching and example. Rhetorically, Pastor Hickey asked his congregation, “What would Jesus do? Would he flip the switch or would he switch places?”[xi]