For decades, abortion rights advocates have disparaged conservatives who support the death penalty but call themselves "pro-life," saying they are simply “pro-birth.” But since 2012, not only has Republican support for capital punishment been waning, but conservatives have increasingly called for its repeal, according to a new study by a right-leaning group.
Thirty-one states, mainly located in the South, Midwest and West, currently allow people found guilty of certain crimes to be put to death. But that number has been shrinking. Illinois, New York and Connecticut are among seven states that have repealed the death penalty in the past decade – more than had done so in the four preceding decades combined, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In addition, four states have placed a moratorium on the ultimate punishment since 2011.
Most of those are blue states, but members of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which authored the study, say momentum against capital punishment is building even in Republican states.
Between 2000 and 2012, Republican sponsorship of bills that would outright repeal the death penalty languished in the single digits. That number started climbing after 2012, with a high of 40 Republican sponsorships in 2016.
Most of those bills failed in their respective statehouses. And in Nebraska, where capital punishment was repealed in 2015, a referendum on the 2016 ballot to reinstate it passed with 61 percent of the vote.
But Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for the conservative group, predicted that Republican-led repeal measures would gain steam. Several current and former state legislators speaking at an event Wednesday to announce the findings agreed, saying it was “foolish” to spend money on the death penalty.
The cost of the death penalty versus life in prison varies between states, but the price tag of sentencing someone to death is typically hundreds of thousands of dollars more than putting that person in prison for life. Some of the gap can be attributed to spending on the trial phase of the case: Capital trials are complicated and time consuming — specially qualified public defenders must be found, for instance, and jury selection is more rigorous than usual. In addition, death row inmates file multiple appeals of their convictions, and those appeals can go all the way to the Supreme Court.
So far in 2017, 21 individuals have been executed in the U.S., with 20 years being the median amount of time elapsed between sentencing and execution.
“The death penalty turns murderers into celebrities, it denies closure to family victims and it mocks basic deterrence concepts of our criminal laws. Life imprisonment saves taxpayers money, provides swift and final justice and condemns murderers to ignominious demise outside the public’s gaze and attention,” said Stephen Urquhart, a former Utah state senator. “These simple, irrefutable facts quickly turned my Republican Senate colleagues from staunch supporters of the death penalty to backers of repeal. It’s the most amazing thing I saw in my 16 years in the Utah legislature.”
Other legislators mentioned different motivations for growing conservative opposition to ending the life of even someone who’s committed a hideous crime.
“For me, it’s a pro-life issue, it’s a Christian issue, it’s a Catholic issue,” said Washington State Sen. Mark Miloscia. “Can we be pro-life and be supporting the death penalty?”
About half of Americans still support the death penalty, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, but that’s the lowest figure since 1972. It has been steadily declining since support for capital punishment peaked in 1994, when 80 percent of the public supported it.
State-by-state polls that suggest replacing the death penalty with life without parole or other delayed parole options have scored higher numbers with the public. Polls found 68 percent of respondents in North Carolina and 67 percent of those surveyed in Kentucky would support such a replacement.
The Kansas Republican Party left support for the death penalty off its platform in 2014, instead calling it a “matter of individual conscience.” When the issue was revisited in 2016, a proposal to adopt a pro-death penalty stance was voted down, 90-75.
Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby