The Louisiana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty have taken this position because, according to the group’s national manager Heather Cox, “Millions [of dollars] … are not going toward programs that actually could work to deter crimes in the first place, which we know that the death penalty does not. The death penalty is a failed, broken, big government program marked by all the error, corruption, and fallibility that we see in so many other government programs.”
It’s never a good sign when a group’s leader speaks, if not disingenuously, ignorantly about the very premise behind the effort. In reality, nearly a half century of high-quality, nonpartisan research demonstrates capital punishment does absolutely deter crime. It saves lives, and for the group’s leader to deny that makes the entire group seem fraudulent.
However, there is a condition to this truism: the deterrence effect works only when it seems credible. While in some states like neighboring Texas which regularly carries out the grisly sentences have no trouble achieving this, Louisiana has, lately of the self-inflicted kind that meshes with the group’s agenda.
Capital punishment opponents use this strategy as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. By creating political obstacles that, if not halt entirely, slow executions to a crawl, they try to bolster the case that it doesn’t work. Note, however, that it’s not the concept of capital punishment that inherently is flawed, but the deliberate sabotage of the administration of it, which then opponents erroneously try to conflate with the concept itself.
This sitzkrieg strategy also attempts to fuel a related line of attack against the death penalty, in that it becomes too expensive relative to life imprisonment as an alleged substitute. Inability to carry out these sentences keeps the condemned on death row, with costs mounting both to keep them incarcerated and to deal with legal machinations delaying sentence imposition.
This argument fails for two reasons. First, again the higher costs come not as a consequence of the inherent nature of the death penalty, but in its misapplication. Second, cost considerations are irrelevant, because life imprisonment isn’t a substitute for a death sentence. Convicts who plead guilty to receive life imprisonment validate this because they so willingly trade away a trial where they could risk receiving a capital sentence (and in doing so lower prosecution costs, which opponents don’t factor in). In other words, the nature of a crime that calls for a more severe sentence calls for a more expensive resolution, making the assertion that the death penalty cost Louisiana taxpayers nearly $16 million more annually than life without parole useless trivia that has no bearing on the argument.
Yet another deficient argument against capital punishment, this cited by group member faux conservative/publicity hound/chronic candidate Rob Maness, is that occasionally somebody on death row finds exoneration. But again, this isn’t a feature of capital punishment but of careless administration of it, from overzealous prosecution to inattentive juries. Due to technological advances, sentencing of the innocent for capital crimes on forensic grounds continually becomes less likely, and there’s no reason that the human element must fail. Having it as an option doesn’t mandate its use, and especially when any doubt at all exists about the accused’s guilt.
Capital punishment is pro-life because it saves innocent lives even if as a result those who merit losing their lives do – although in the end it may save their eternal lives, because with the certainty of death looming this provides incentives for death row inhabitants to focus on seeking the grace of redemption and putting their lives right with God in the time they have left. Political will that overcomes intentional resistance to administer executions will reduce costs and make the practice an even greater deterrent. All true – but are the consequences of these facts congruent with conservatism?
Conservatism posits that government should operate to minimize interference with the affairs of individuals, so long as it provides for basic security and survival needs for all in society who in turn have an obligation to reciprocate by not interfering with others in their quests to achieve individually. Opposition to the death penalty denies this, by impeding government in its quest to provide that security by its treatment of individuals who fail to respect non-interference with others in the most warlike manner possible – the ultimate interference through abrogation of victims’ human rights by the taking of their lives without extenuating circumstances.
It’s easy to be a libertarian and argue against capital punishment; the individual is so sacred that government cannot take a life for any reason, even to save lives from someone at war with society. But it’s impossible to be a true conservative and do the same. You can call yourself a conservative generally, but it is self-deception to think opposition to the death penalty is consistent with the tenets of conservatism.