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]
Help Change the Conversation on the Death Penalty
In a short period of time, CCATDP has made tremendous strides in challenging assumptions about conservatives and the death penalty. Conservative leaders such as Jay Sekulow, Richard Viguerie, and Brent Bozell are national supporters and publicly have shared why the death penalty is contrary to their conservative beliefs.[xii]
A Montana chapter of CCATDP—which preceded the national CCATDP—has been active for years and helped pass a death penalty repeal bill through Montana’s Republican-controlled state senate. More state chapters are in the process of forming in other states.
There have been important successes, but it would be a mistake to ignore the obvious challenges in this work. The Republican platform at the national level and in some states includes a plank supporting capital punishment. A number of red states still have the death penalty, and some—particularly in the South—frequently carry out executions. To change these policies, the coalition of conservatives simply has to grow. We hope you will join CCATDP in this important work—sign up at conservativesconcerned.org, “Friend” us on Facebook, “Follow” us on Twitter, “Connect” with us on LinkedIn, and get involved today.
Ben Jones is a Kansas-based campaign strategist for Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) and also works in support of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of EJUSA. Ben led the successful effort to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty last year.
i. Marshall Frady, “Death in Arkansas,” The New Yorker, February 22, 1993, pp. 105-123.
ii. Death Penalty Information Center, “Number of Executions by State and Region Since 1976,” June 27, 2013, <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/ number-executions-state-and-region-1976>.
iii. Gallup, “In U.S., Support for Death Penalty Falls to 39-Year Low,” October 13, 2011, <http://www.gallup.com/poll/150089/support-death-penalty-falls-year-low.aspx>.
iv. Right on Crime, “Statement of Principles,” 2013, <http://www.rightoncrime.com/the-conservative-case-for-reform/statement-of-principles/>.
v. United States Department of Justice, “The Federal Death Penalty: A Statistical Survey (1988-2000),” September 12, 2000, <http://www.justice.gov/dag/ pubdoc/dpsurvey.html>.
vi. Kathleen M. Garcia, “Death Penalty Hurts—Not Helps—Families of Murder Victims,” Nashua Telegraph, March 28, 2010, <http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/opinion/perspectives/ 687551-263/death-penalty-hurts--not-helps-.html>.
vii. Death Penalty Information Center, “Innocence: List of Those Freed from Death Row,” December 21, 2012, <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-list-those-freed-death-row>.
viii. Ashby Jones and Steve Eder, “Costs Test Backing for Death Penalty,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2012, <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443493304578036792267666794.html>.
ix. Death Penalty Information Center, “Deterrence: States Without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates,” 2012, <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/deterrence-states-without-death-penalty-have-had-consistently-lower-murder-rates#stateswithvwithout> .
x. Mike Janocik, “Catholics Calling for Repeal of the Death Penalty,” CatholiveVote.org, June 11, 2013, <http://www.catholicvote.org/catholics-calling-for-repeal-of-the-death-penalty/>.
xi. Cory Allen Heidelberger, “The Switch: Steve Hickey and the Death Penalty,” South Dakota Magazine, June 26, 2013, <http://southdakotamagazine.com/steve-hickey-death-penalty>.
xii. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, “Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty National Supporters,” 2013, <http:// conservativesconcerned.org/what-conservatives-are-saying/>.