"What's the main argument that has been convincing so many conservatives to turn against the death penalty?"
I'm often asked that question, and it's my least favorite because there isn't just one reason for this transformation. There are at least a dozen reasons.
As I've sat in state capitols across the country, listening to communities discuss the ongoing practice of capital punishment, the stark contrast in the debate has been on full display. One side comes with broad coalitions, rational talking points, data, firsthand accounts, and practicality. The other side attempts to deny data, lies, fearmongers and relies on hyperbolic predictions that have never played out in reality.
Proponents claim violence will skyrocket without the death penalty, which is easily disproved. They claim they won't be able to bully people into plea deals as easily (um, good?) And they seek to downplay the shocking number of wrongful convictions discovered in the system, or deny the blatant socioeconomic and racial bias in sentencing.
Frankly, it's rough to watch.
They didn't have a leg to stand on to begin with. And with the onslaught of the new coronavirus, the excuses for keeping the death penalty continue to dwindle at an even faster pace.
The costs of capital punishment have been a mounting problem for fiscal conservatives for some time. Each capital trial costs up to 10 times more than the next, most strenuous punishment (life in prison without parole), on average. And that's mostly just for the trial, where 70% of the death penalty's costs stem from.
States spend even more money and energy on the lengthy appeal process — which is imperative, considering one person has been exonerated from death row for every nine executions. Even more is spent on procuring the necessary lethal injection drugs to carry out executions.
The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, meaning states spend these excess dollars symbolically instead of on programs that could actually prevent violence in the first place and make communities safer, or on efforts to solve more crimes (which we're still very bad at, by the way.)
These opportunity costs result in a highly ineffective government program, one whose flaws will be felt even more profusely in this new, COVID-19-driven economic crisis. The reality is that many cities and states are about to run out of money. That means wages won't be paid, services won't be delivered, and institutions will fold. Voters already had a lot of questions for lawmakers who were wasting their tax dollars on broken systems before this mess. Does anyone really think they'll look the other way if states choose to waste millions on death penalty cases now?
And then there's the ongoing problems with lethal injection drugs. Drug manufacturers have made it crystal clear they do not want their products used in executions, and they've taken advantage of every legal avenue to prevent it. But states have continued to violate their rights to do business with whom they please. Legislatures have passed secrecy laws, seeking to block knowledge of what drugs they have and where they've gotten them (typically because they're obtaining them illegally.)
This should have been an issue for limited government advocates all along. Government should never get to operate in the shadows under any circumstance, and proponents of individual liberty agree: No business owner should have to participate in activities that violate their conscience or religious beliefs. Participating in executions certainly meets that threshold.
As some governors have recently pointed out, continuing to use these products could result in drug companies refusing to sell their products to states at all. Since these drugs are actually medicines that many people depend on in normal circumstances, that could result in thousands of people who depend on state programs for their medicines (Medicaid recipients, state troopers other inmates) being left high and dry.
Compounding these existing problems is yet another COVID-19 development. In a recent letter to state correction departments, a group of pharmacists, public health experts and intensive care unit doctors called on states to hand over existing stockpiles of execution drugs to health care facilities, as they are needed in the fight to treat and stop the spread of coronavirus.
The ethical conflicts for supporters of the death penalty — especially conservatives — are piling up, even as the flaws in the system and its failure to achieve its goals continue to come to light. We are out of excuses to support this failed big government program, let it go along with so many of the other unnecessary government regulations we're currently scrapping in this fight.
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. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.
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