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June 9, 2019

Has death penalty reform "quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue"?

About four years ago, I asked in this 2015 post "Is there really a "growing conservative movement" that will create "bipartisan coalition opposing" the death penalty?".  That post was prompted by a commentary noting various anti-death penalty movements in various red states.  This new Atlantic piece, headlined "GOP Lawmakers Are Quietly Turning Against the Death Penalty," is written in this same spirit and inspired by the repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire.  Here are excerpts:

Though law-and-order conservatives have long championed the death penalty, New Hampshire is one of a growing number of states where Republicans ... are joining Democrats to push for a ban.  Last week, New Hampshire became the 21st state to outlaw capital punishment, one of 11 states this year — including GOP strongholds such as Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, and Missouri — where Republican lawmakers have sponsored bills to end the practice.  The movement is the result of several political factors, including Republican and Democratic concern over the country’s criminal-justice system.  But it’s also been motivated by lawmakers’ personal experiences....  Death-penalty reform has quietly broken through as a bipartisan issue — one that could portend a shaky future for capital punishment in the U.S.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire had tried and failed to outlaw the death penalty for two decades.  In 2018, they got close: The GOP-controlled state legislature passed a repeal bill, though it didn’t have enough votes to override Republican Governor Chris Sununu’s quick veto.  This year was different.  A repeal bill, co-sponsored by Welch, passed both chambers with just enough bipartisan support to narrowly best the governor.

Of course, many Republican state lawmakers — not to mention the president — still support the death penalty.  So does their base: A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that three-quarters of Republican voters favor capital punishment, compared with just 35 percent of Democrats.  And the overwhelming majority of executions take place in red states: Of the 25 prisoners put to death in the United States last year, 13 were in Texas alone.  Democrats still continue to lead the charge to abolish the death penalty throughout the country, and starting in 2016, the national party included it in its official platform.  Nevertheless, like other states, New Hampshire wouldn’t have been successful without the support of dozens of Republicans in the legislature....

It wasn’t always this way.  Politicians from both parties have historically used the death penalty as a wedge issue to show that they were “tough on crime,” says Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.  A rise in the number of executions in the 1990s coincided with a push toward mass incarceration. While calls for reform escalated in the 2000s, as late as 2008, the then–presidential candidate Barack Obama voiced his disagreement with a Supreme Court ruling limiting the use of the death penalty in Louisiana.

One significant reason the tide has started to shift is the rise in conservative support for criminal-justice reform in the past few years.  Conservative groups such as Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute have advocated for reforms, including the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill President Donald Trump signed into law in late 2018 that changed some sentencing laws and targeted recidivism....

“As conservatives, we know the government’s flawed. We hate the government,” says Hannah Cox, the national manager of the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Why would we give it power over life and death?”...

Overall, the opposition to the death penalty among Republicans represents a genuine, if slim, fault line in the party, one that could grow in parallel with concerns about the criminal-justice system as a whole. State lawmakers seem like the ones to watch: From 2000 to 2016, the number of GOP legislators sponsoring death-penalty-repeal bills increased by more than a factor of 10, according to Cox’s group. Repeal efforts have made it strikingly far in some conservative states. In February, Wyoming’s repeal bill passed the House and came within seven votes of passing the Senate. In Utah, a 2016 repeal effort passed the Senate but was just eight votes shy in the House. And in 2015, Nebraska lawmakers successfully overrode the governor’s veto to ban the death penalty, although it was later reinstated....

But for conservatives in New Hampshire who were key in getting death-penalty repeal past his veto, their concerns about capital punishment were too hard to ignore.  Bob Giuda, a Republican state senator, told me he also used to support the death penalty, but then slowly changed his mind.  “What do we accomplish by executing people?” he said.  “What statement do we make?” Giuda’s wife lives in a vegetative state, and he told me that he aspires to view all lives as equal, whether it’s his wife’s or Addison’s. “We don’t get to assign that value,” he said.

That type of deeply intimate answer may be why Republicans and Democrats in New Hampshire, and in other states, are joining together to scrap death-penalty laws, even as they remain deeply polarized on a whole set of other issues.  “I never hear, ‘Well, my caucus thinks’ or, ‘My party says,’” Hruska said. “It’s always a personal answer.”

June 9, 2019 at 11:34 AM | Permalink

Comments

Doug:

I am very active in all these debates within all the states.

There is no doubt that anti death penalty efforts are much more bi partisan.

The odd thing, so far, with no explanation, is that all the false anti death penalty claims, previously, easily, rebutted, are, now, being accepted by Republicans, who will not and cannot defend those false claims.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 10, 2019 8:11:50 AM

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