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The Death Penalty’s New Skeptics

In states across the country, conservatives are starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment.

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It’s a government program that is prone to error, marred by long delays and far more expensive than alternative policies. So it may be little wonder that the death penalty keeps attracting new opposition. But it’s surprising where some of that opposition is coming from. 

Over the past decade, the death penalty has been abolished in seven states. Most of those are dominated by Democrats. But the most recent is deeply conservative Nebraska, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of an abolition bill last year. Other red states are revisiting the issue as well. A bill to abolish the death penalty fell short by a single vote in a Kentucky House committee this year, while similar legislation actually passed the Utah Senate before failing in the House.

Last year, the Montana House killed an abolition bill on a tie vote. A few months later, a judge there imposed a moratorium on executions, citing the difficulty of obtaining appropriate drugs for lethal injection -- an issue that has put capital punishment on hold in several states. Litigation over delayed or botched executions compounds problems with meting out the penalty. “Our death penalty is a joke,” Republican state Rep. Clayton Fiscus said during the debate.

The average death row inmate can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year more to house than run-of-the-mill criminals. Prisoners who are executed can cost upward of $1 million more than those sentenced to life without possibility of parole. “This is a program that’s so bad, the left and right can actually agree on it,” says Marc Hyden, a former field representative with the National Rifle Association who now works for an advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

Not everyone is ready to abandon the ultimate punishment for the worst offenders. Polls show support for the death penalty has been weakening in recent years, but a majority of Americans still back it. After the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out Florida’s death penalty law in January, legislators quickly passed a plan to overhaul its jury process so the law would pass legal muster. But a state judge threw the plan out in May. Nebraska residents will vote this November on whether to override the legislature and reinstate the death penalty.

But it’s indisputable that the growing corps of death penalty skeptics now includes many conservatives. There are enough Republican legislators in Washington state ready to join with Democrats that a repeal measure there could pass, if a key committee chair would allow it to come to a vote. “Many of us conservatives don’t trust government to launch a health-care program or fill potholes, let alone carry out life and death,” Hyden says. “It’s the quintessential broken big-government program.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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