Support for the death penalty may be dropping across the board, but the policy still enjoys substantially stronger support from conservatives than from liberals. On the surface, this makes sense. The death penalty saves money and promotes law and order — right? I would argue that a closer look at the facts reveals that the practice actually runs contrary to most traditional conservative principles.
Conservatives believe in limiting the government’s interference in the lives of private citizens as much as possible. This principle is rooted in the very rational belief that the government is not a reliable institution. You don’t have to be a conservative to acknowledge that a huge, churning bureaucracy like the United States government is going to make mistakes pretty frequently. Here is a very incomplete list of things that I — a bleedin’ heart liberal snowflake, in the interests of full disclosure — do not trust the government to do correctly:
1. Collect garbage. The government does a bad job. There’s no reason why Trash Day should always end with stray bits of garbage scattered across the street.
2. Create a website. Have you ever seen a government website that didn’t look like it was made by programmer who just discovered blogging in the 1990s?
3. Kill its citizens.
If you don’t trust the government to regulate banks or dictate school curriculums, how can you also think, sure, let’s put them in charge of judgements of life and death? Inflicting the death penalty is the single greatest form of government interference imaginable. It is a direct violation of citizens’ rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is an example of government overreach of the most dramatic and irreversible kind, the kind that conservatives would usually oppose.
Conservatives also believe in minimizing government spending. The death penalty costs taxpayers a lot of extra money. One study indicates that in Maryland alone, death penalty convictions cost taxpayers $3 million per case, compared to just $1.1 million for comparable cases where the death penalty wasn’t pursued. That adds up to a lifetime cost of $186 million to Maryland taxpayers. Increased security costs and endless appeals lead to a far higher price tag than that of a life sentence.
Of course, supporters of the death penalty can argue that this expenditure is worthwhile. But even if you believe that the government executing people is just, even if you believe that the justice system only convicts guilty people, even if you support the whole process wholeheartedly — do you support it to the tune of $308 million per execution? Since reinstituting the death penalty in 1978, Californians have shelled out $4 billion to maintain a program that has carried out only 13 executions in that time.
The death penalty isn’t just wildly overpriced, it’s incredibly inefficient — exactly the sort of program conservative principles demand should be cut.
The reason for that low execution rate illustrates another reason conservatives shouldn’t favor the death penalty. In some places, executions aren’t carried out unless the inmate has given up the appeals that they’re entitled to — essentially volunteering for death. That’s not capital punishment. That’s giving criminals what they want. That’s court-assisted suicide. That’s something any conservative should fight against.
Conservatives believe in law and order. The death penalty does nothing for law and order. States with the death penalty actually consistently have slightly higher murder rates than states without capital punishment. The death sentence is only supposed to be handed down in cases where the defendant committed especially heinous crimes—torture, child murder, cop killing. Do we think these people are stopping to seriously consider the consequences to their actions? Deterence is a myth, and it’s an expensive one.
The death penalty is not foster care or taxation or education or any other complex, flawed system where the government must dramatically and possibly irreversibly alter people’s lives because there is no reliable alternative. The death penalty, with all its errors and failures, could simply not exist. We could just . . . not let the government kill people. There are alternatives, like making life in prison without parole the maximum sentence. Every other developed nation has embraced this alternative. The death penalty is a wasteful, ineffective, inefficient, overpriced example of government overreach that we could abandon in a heartbeat without consequence. Conservatives should consider it.
Sarah White is a writer and works with Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.