The death penalty appears to be nearing a tipping point in America.
Death sentences, executions, and support for capital punishment are all at or near historic lows. Juries aren’t delivering death sentences with the frequency that they once did. District attorneys are increasingly seeking alternatives to executions.
In many locales, notorious pro-capital punishment prosecutors have been voted out of office. And states are gradually repealing the death penalty or at least placing moratoriums on its use. When these facts are considered, it appears that capital punishment could be on its last legs. But what’s driving this? There’s no simple answer. There are many variables, but the burgeoning conservative death penalty opposition that emerged in 2013 is clearly an influencing factor.
It was once generally assumed that all conservatives were capital punishment proponents, but not anymore. In 2013, I helped launch Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. It is a national network of conservatives who believe that capital punishment is a violation of our principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility, and limited government.
We were founded, in part, to shatter the myth of universal conservative death penalty support, which I believe we’ve unquestionably accomplished. Since then, we’ve worked with conservative and libertarian stalwarts like Jay Sekulow, Richard Viguerie, and Dr. Ron Paul, who all oppose the death penalty. But these icons aren’t alone.
Recently, we released new evidence that demonstrates that Republicans are increasingly rejecting the death penalty for what it is – a broken government program. On Oct. 25, at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., I joined with several current and former Republican state lawmakers who have previously sponsored death penalty repeal legislation. We unveiled a new report that documents a surge of Republican lawmakers who support ending capital punishment.
Our findings showed that in 2000, a mere four Republicans nationwide sponsored death penalty repeal bills, and for the next 12 years, that number never exceeded the single digits. By 2013 (the year CCATDP launched), the amount of Republican repeal champions surged to 20, and last year, it reached a new high of 40. This is a marked change from when it was once assumed that sponsoring similar bills was solely for bleeding heart liberals.
It’s now clear that the death penalty is no longer a partisan issue that neatly divides the political left and right. In fact, some of the most promising death penalty abolition efforts in recent memory have occurred in red states and were led by Republicans. States that are largely considered bastions of conservatism, like Utah, Montana, Kentucky, and Louisiana, have all taken great strides towards repeal.
The shifting death penalty views that are evident in these states and many others aren’t limited to legislators. On the contrary, it’s a grassroots outcry that is spurring new developments in and out of statehouses, and Kansas is a prime example of this. In the past few years, Kansas Republican Party officials abandoned their platform’s pro-death penalty plank. Meanwhile, the Kansas Republican Liberty Caucus and Kansas Federation of College Republicans adopted resolutions calling for the death penalty’s repeal. These organizations concluded that, given the inherent flaws and risks, capital punishment should be swiftly discarded.
These same sentiments are being echoed in red states across America, which is apparent by the number of state-based CCATDP groups that have launched. To date, 11 such state networks exist and are comprised of well-known political thought leaders, activists, and elected officials who believe that capital punishment is little more than a dangerous and burdensome government program. As a result, they are actively working to educate their peers about the death penalty’s many practical flaws.
As conservative opposition to capital punishment mounts and red states move closer to repealing the death penalty, capital punishment’s days seem numbered. While it’s impossible to know when the death penalty will ultimately become a thing of the past, one thing is certain: It’s no longer a given that conservatives support it. In fact, it’s increasingly appearing that it will be conservatives, not liberals, who will finally provide the added votes that are necessary to tip the balance of power decidedly against capital punishment in America.
Marc Hyden is the national advocacy coordinator with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA. He previously worked for the National Rifle Association, where he served as a campaign field representative in the State of Florida.
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