by Marc Hyden:
Today’s news is filled with stories about the political right’s feud that is pitting the GOP’s old guard against tea partiers. There is no doubt the conservative world is in the midst of change, but there is another movement afoot that has the potential to galvanize a broad spectrum of conservatives while also creating unlikely alliances.
Conservatives are increasingly becoming bridge builders by supporting criminal justice reforms that would have been improbable a generation ago. From over-criminalization and the war on drugs to prison over-crowding and juvenile justice, conservatives are now rethinking long held positions that have led to a wasteful, massive prison build up across the country. Not surprisingly, we are doing it by applying traditional conservative principles such as individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, and respect for innocent life.
This is why in 2013 the death penalty climbed up the conservative list of criminal justice reforms and gained new prominence. In March, Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty officially debuted at CPAC (see here) with the support of icons such as Brent Bozell, Jay Sekulow, and Richard Viguerie. The goal was simple, to put an end to the fiction that all conservatives support capital punishment.
Since then, an array of conservative thought-leaders have endorsed Conservatives Concerned, among them former GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ron Paul. The group also formed a strategic partnership with Young Americans for Liberty, the largest and fastest growing pro-liberty organization on America’s campuses today. Meanwhile conservatives in more than a half dozen states began to organize their own groups to question capital punishment.
There are many reasons why.
With more than 140 people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in our country since the 1970s, there is no longer any doubt that the death penalty system puts innocent lives at risk. This makes it inconsistent with the conservative tenets of ensuring individual liberty and of protecting potentially innocent life.
The death penalty is far more expensive than alternatives such as life without parole. We’re spending billions of dollars, and we have more than 3,000 people on death rows. Many of them have been there for decades, and given the risk of irreversible error, it’s a good thing the system doesn’t work faster. However, to a growing number of fiscal conservatives this is looking more and more like a government program that costs a lot and accomplishes nothing.
There are other considerations driving conservatives to reevaluate the death penalty system. We must consider capital punishment’s inability to make us safer and the numerous ways that it fails victims’ families. We’ve witnessed the hard reality that so-called “fixes” to make the death penalty faster also increase the risk of executing an innocent person and magnify the system’s inability to operate fairly or accurately.
Perhaps more than anything else, conservatives share a deep and abiding mistrust of government. Conservatives have always believed that justice must be blind and that the law must be applied fairly. This is where the conservative re-examination of the criminal justice system and capital punishment connects us across constituencies. Polls consistently show that people of color do not trust the justice system. This is an issue where there is common ground with conservatives, an issue around which we can genuinely collaborate and reach beyond outdated stereotypes.
Even as the GOP goes through inevitable and sometimes wrenching change, there are issues that unite rather than divide us. Reforming our criminal justice and reevaluating death penalty are at the top of that list.
Marc Hyden serves as the Advocacy Coordinator with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a Project of EJUSA. Prior to this work, Marc was a Campaign Field Representative with the National Rifle Association, Campaign Manager for Republican campaigns, the Legislative Liaison with the Georgia Office of Homeland Security, and Legislative Aide to the Georgia Senate President Pro Tempore.