Death penalty repeal a growing trend among Republican lawmakers

By Kevin J. Jones

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The lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Republican lawmakers play an increasing role in opposition to the death penalty. Both political principles and, for some, their Catholic faith, play a role in motivating their stand.

“Since the Tea Party revolution, growing numbers of Tea Partiers have been elected to state legislative posts, and many of them campaigned on promises of instituting fiscal responsibility and limited government,” said Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. “Yet, the death penalty conflicts with these ideals.”

Hyden’s organization, a project of the national anti-death penalty group Equal Justice USA, has 11 state chapters in the U.S.

The makeup of legislatures is changing, he said. More millennials are taking office, and their generation is less likely to support the death penalty. They have joined with older Republican colleagues who have quietly disapproved of the death penalty.

“Furthermore, many Catholic legislators are taking a moral and religious stand against the death penalty,” said Hyden, adding: “The shift in the grassroots and among conservative political leaders has encouraged Republican lawmakers to champion repeal.”

His group has published a report called “The Right Way,” examining Republican support for death penalty repeal.

The number of Republican lawmakers who sponsored death penalty repeal legislation peaked in 2016 at 40, it said. This is a strong contrast from the years 2000-2012, when they never numbered more than nine. Since that period, their numbers have stayed in the double digits. In 2017, 31 percent of all death penalty repeal bills were sponsored by Republicans.

The report cites Catholic Republican lawmakers like State Sen. Paul Wielan of Imperial, Mo., and State Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge, La., who both backed pro-repeal bills in their state.

In Hyden’s view, there are several reasons why more Republicans are turning against the death penalty. There have been “numerous failures” of the death penalty: wrongful convictions, botched executions, rising costs, and failure to keep society safe. These failures have become “so frequent and egregious that the public and elected officials can no longer ignore them,” he said.

He cited Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty’s own work and education campaigns about what he called the death penalty’s “practical failures.”

“I believe we’ve made great strides in our endeavors too,” said Hyden, deeming death penalty repeal as consistent with conservative priorities like limited government and valuing life.

According to Hyden, there is a broader shift against the death penalty, according to various surveys such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center, which last year showed support for the death penalty at a 40-year-low. In North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky some polls suggest that most respondents wanted to repeal the death penalty.

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