Factors Behind the GOP's New Attitudes About the Death Penalty

Recently I wrote about the growing phenomenon of Republicans that have abandoned the death penalty as a sensible form of punishment for crimes. I talked about how it was happening, but wanted to review some of the reasons why we are seeing this change in the GOP.

In this age of partisan discord and political polarization, something unusual is happening. In states all across the nation, Republican legislators are taking a hard look at whether the death penalty truly aligns with their conservative principles, and increasingly, they are joining Democrats in trying to end it. Considering the polar opposite views historically between conservatives and liberals on this issue, this is very surprising. Fueled by beliefs in limited government, fiscal responsibility, an increase among Republicans with a libertarian bent, and the value of life, these GOP lawmakers are actually leading a historic bipartisan shift away from capital punishment in America.

Two reports announced in just the past week graphically illustrate a large part of what is taking place. Gallup’s annual death penalty poll showed support for the death penalty at its lowest level in the past 45 years. It also showed that Republican support dropped nearly 10-points in just the past year. The second report, from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, found a ten-fold increase in the number of Republican state legislators sponsoring death penalty repeal bills over the past 16 years.

The fact is, Republican state lawmakers are now at the forefront of efforts to end the death penalty. From 2000 to 2012, it was rare for Republican state lawmakers to sponsor death penalty repeal bills. But in 2013, the annual number of Republican sponsors more than doubled. By 2016 ten times as many Republicans sponsored repeal bills than in 2000. Plus, more than 67% of the Republicans sponsoring death penalty repeal bills did so in red states. Today, nearly one third of all death penalty repeal bills nationwide are sponsored by Republicans. This was unheard of just over a decade ago. Not only are many Republicans now leading the charge against the death penalty, others are not nearly as likely to take a strident position for it, as in the past.

Why is this happening? One reason is the tea party wave. State legislatures have been filled with a new brand of conservative in recent years. They inherently distrust government. They do not trust a government that has trouble producing a health care website or delivering the mail on time to get the death penalty right.  One example in the current news cycle comes, not surprisingly, out of my state of Texas where the Austin Police crime lab may have botched evidence in a death penalty case. Cases of government incompetence pique the ire of limited government conservative Republicans.

Also, currently in the news is what’s being described as the Pope’s Pro-life Challenge on the death penalty.  Strong pro-life forces are a major factor for the surge in Republican death penalty opposition, and not just in conservative Catholic circles, but in conservative Evangelical circles as well. One of many recent developments was the National Association of Evangelicals dropping its long-held pro-death penalty position to one that acknowledges the growing opposition to capital punishment within the ranks of the faithful.

Finally, Republican state legislators increasingly agree the death penalty is anything but fiscally conservative.  Every authoritative study shows capital punishment costs far more than life without parole. Right now taxpayers in one county in South Dakota are looking at a $500-thousand to $1-million tax hike due to two death penalty cases. To a growing number of Republicans, the extreme cost of the death penalty coupled with its lack of deterrent value is tantamount to a wasteful government program that likely accomplishes nothing.

All across America, death sentences are down, support for the death penalty is plummeting, and Republicans in statehouses from Utah to Kansas are standing up to end it once and for all. They are not doing it in spite of being conservative, they are doing it because it is the conservative thing to do.

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