Some Reading for Conservatives Who Oppose the Death Penalty

In recent years, opponents of capital punishment have leveled key criticisms against conservatives, claiming major hypocrisy in their continued approval of society's most serious criminal sanction.  One claim is that conservative support for the death penalty violates the most central tenet of conservatism – that of limited government.  How can conservatives, they ask, in their suspicion of and disdain for large, powerful government, advocate use of the greatest governmental power of all, the taking of life?  Contradiction – indeed, hypocrisy – is said to exist.

This charge is faulty, even bogus.  Unfortunately, this and other equally faulty charges have resonated with certain members of the conservative movement, among them state and federal lawmakers.

Why is the above claim so faulty, in fact lacking of substance?  The answer lies in the fact that conservatives are not anarchists.  Yes, conservatives do believe in very limited size and power of government.  However, that does not mean they abandon the most basic functions of government, chief among them protection of the people through military and police powers.  Or a court and penal system to further provide safety and administer justice.

Does the death penalty bring about justice?  To many citizens, the answer is yes, absolutely.  When someone takes the life of another or several others in a wanton, cruel, and malicious way, nothing less than the forfeiture of the killer's life brings justice.  Life for a life (or many lives) taken.

Does the death penalty bring about safety?  Yes, for sure.  Executed killers will never claim new victims.  They are completely incapacitated, something life without parole cannot guarantee.  And executions, beyond a doubt, deter others from committing murder.  How many depends on a variety of circumstances, but to claim there is no (zero) deterrence brought about via execution of the guilty is completely absurd.  As death penalty expert Dudley Sharp points out, levels may vary depending on the severity of sanction, but there is absolutely no such thing as a negative sanction having zero deterrence.  Numerous peer-reviewed studies at major universities showing that the death penalty deters back Sharp.

Capital punishment, then, helps to fulfill the most basic of government functions: protecting the public and furthering justice.  This fact renders "big government" arguments against it rather empty.

Another claim leveled at conservatives in their so-called contradictory support for capital punishment is that the death penalty is fiscally unsound.  Everyone knows that conservatives rail against government deficits and debt brought about by too much government spending.  Conservatives want the fiscal ship of government to be in order.  Opponents, then, point out the huge financial costs associated with the death penalty.  Death sentences for murder are way more costly than life imprisonment, they say.  These death penalty opponents are largely correct.  Capital trials are more expensive than non-capital trials.  Years and years of appeals are also quite costly.

That capital trials are more expensive is a fact of life, given what is at stake.  The answer to the larger argument, however, is a resounding "So what?"  Defenders of the death penalty often correctly reply that you can't put a price on justice or the life of the victim.  And the cost argument is rendered moot by offsetting the larger costs of capital trials with a reduction and streamlining of appeals.  So many appeals are nothing more than frivolous stall tactics, which need to be eliminated.  They are "dilatory," as one federal judge put it.  As for other challenges, reasonable timetables (deadlines) need to be established for defense lawyer filings and judicial hearings/rulings.  If these commonsense reforms were put in place to counter delay efforts and foot-dragging by defense lawyers and (quite often) sympathetic judges within the judiciary, serious cost reductions would occur, rendering the "death penalty is fiscally unsound" argument meritless.  But in a main way it is already meritless in that many of the very people claiming exorbitant costs are those largely responsible for them.

Opponents of capital punishment inside and outside government, through various methods formal and informal, purposely drive up expenses, then disingenuously claim the death penalty unworthy due to its tremendous costs.  A "broken" system is said to be at hand.  This is tantamount to a person placing a large boulder between the rails on the tracks in front of an oncoming locomotive, then blaming the railroad company for the train's derailment and wreck.  Opponents of capital punishment know that the system would obviously work much better if it weren't for their intransigence and if various commonsensical reforms were put in place.  But would they ever support implementation of such reforms?  Hell, no!  This is what makes their "exorbitant" argument so hollow, not to mention phony.

Finally, members of the anti-death penalty crowd say conservative supporters of capital punishment are at odds with their pro-life stance in opposing abortion.  It doesn't seem to occur to death penalty opponents that there is a tremendous moral difference between the two issues.  Abortion takes a completely innocent life. Fetuses have committed no crimes.  Capital punishment takes the lives of those who are guilty of the most horrific actions known to humankind.  Opposing abortion does not require one to oppose capital punishment.  There is no contradiction whatsoever.  Conservatives who have bought into the idea that support for capital punishment violates the pro-life position due to a lack of consistency on life have not made, or are incapable of making, a very serious moral distinction. 

In fact, a strong argument exists that execution of those guilty of murder is very pro-life.  How so?  As mentioned, executed killers will never again take innocent lives. Also, many would-be killers are deterred from murdering by the prospect of their own lives being taken for such actions.  Cleary, the death penalty doesn't deter some from committing murder, but it does stop others.  Support for the death penalty – because it without a doubt saves innocent lives – is a very pro-life stance to take. 

One might also believe that a killer's not suffering the ultimate punishment (death) for committing the ultimate crime (murder) devalues the life of the victim.  Execution asserts that an innocent child's life is/was so precious that nothing less than death should occur for the perpetrator.  A child-killer's execution makes a very profound pro-life and sanctity of life statement.

Conservatives jumping on the anti-death penalty bandwagon in recent years need to rethink their position.  They have been manipulated – duped by the seemingly sound and logical statements of death penalty opponents.  Deeper reflection demonstrates these claims to be very shallow and without merit.