In early 2013, my group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCATDP) launched at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). While we entered CPAC supported by nationally known conservative stalwarts like Richard Viguerie and Jay Sekulow, at first, some viewed us as a bit of a novelty organization.
At the time, conservative-led criminal justice reform was still a relatively new concept, and scrutinizing capital punishment’s many failures from a conservative perspective wasn’t regularly conducted at the national level. Despite this, we ultimately experienced widespread acceptance and incredible success at our first CPAC, and the success of this work has only grown since.
Four short years after we launched, the death penalty’s landscape has shifted dramatically thanks, in part, to the burgeoning conservative push to end capital punishment.
For many years, repealing the death penalty was viewed as a partisan issue only supported by Democrats, and unsurprisingly, nobody batted a lash when the usual suspects on the political left championed efforts to end capital punishment in various states.
Yet the myth that liberals uniformly oppose the death penalty, while conservatives support it, has been thoroughly debunked. In fact, since CCATDP formed, there has been a surge of Republicans filing repeal legislation. Just in the past two legislative cycles, conservatives have sponsored repeal bills in a dozen different states – many of which are deep red bastions of conservatism.
As many of these states inched closer to statutorily ending their capital punishment programs, this last election cycle saw Americans rejecting many renown pro-death penalty prosecutors. Voters from several counties, including Duval County, Florida, and Harris County, Texas, booted their pro-execution district attorneys. These are hardly left-leaning counties, and as such, conservatives played an indelible role in replacing their prosecutors for ones without the same strong affinity for capital punishment.
The reason conservatives are increasingly opposing the death penalty is simple: it doesn’t work, and it violates our core principles.
Most conservatives consider themselves to be pro-life, but there is an ever-present risk of executing an innocent person so long as an error-prone government administers the death penalty. In fact, over 155 people have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. So, it can’t be considered pro-life. Moreover, it costs far more than its alternatives. Exact numbers vary from state to state, but capital punishment easily costs taxpayers millions more than life without parole. These expensive capital proceedings have also been directly responsible for budget crises, resulting in tax increases. Consequently, it can’t be viewed as fiscally responsible.
The death penalty also fails to consistently provide any sort of benefit to outweigh the incredible costs and abhorrent risks. According to peer-reviewed studies and anecdotal evidence, capital punishment doesn’t deter murder, and because of the complex, protracted proceedings, many murder victims’ families find it to be a much more painful process than life without parole. In short, capital punishment is an expensive government program that imperils innocent lives, which is why growing numbers of conservatives are turning against it.
Understanding what the death penalty does in practice rather than in theory is another factor spurring capital punishment’s stark decline. The year before CCATDP launched, there were 43 executions, but last year, there were 20. Similarly, the number of states that executed individuals dropped from 9 in 2012 to 5 in 2016.
There is a similar effect relating to death sentences too. In 2012, 78 death sentences were delivered, but that number shrunk to 30 in 2016. Americans, especially conservatives, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with capital punishment, which can clearly be seen as the death penalty’s usage continues to dwindle.
Four years after CCATDP was founded, we will be returning to CPAC next week, but our experience and message will be slightly different. We have exhibited at the conference every year since 2013, but if the last two years at CPAC are good indicators, then few will look at us with peculiar interest. Instead, we are simply viewed as part of the growing conservative movement.
However, in four years, our message has changed to some extent. Rather than just educating our fellow conservatives about how the death penalty is inconsistent with our values, we can also share how far conservatives have moved the needle when it comes to ending capital punishment.