I am a 21-year old college student from southern Louisiana and I grew up in a staunchly conservative, pro-life, Southern Baptist household. My upbringing, church, and faith remain the foundations of my political beliefs, and it is because of that influence – not in spite of it – that my views on the death penalty have evolved in recent years.
It is common for young people to re-examine matters of public policy that they develop at home and to realize that some of their parents’ positions no longer mesh with their own. Criminal justice is one of those issues for me, as it is for many conservatives and libertarians in Louisiana colleges. We are open to change and looking for policies that will reform criminal justice in our state to make it fairer and less costly.
To that end, I have recently accepted an appointment to serve on the Advisory Council for a new group in the state called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The group has been working in states across the country for over six years, educating those on the right about how support for the death penalty simply doesn’t align with conservative principles. The group’s Louisiana chapter will be seeking to do the same.
Depriving innocent people of their life and liberty should never happen in America, and yet I have learned that it has been happening with shocking frequency. Nationwide, 164 people have been freed from death rows since 1973 because they were wrongfully convicted; 11 of them were facing death right here in Louisiana. In fact, we have the dismal distinction of making the most mistakes (per capita) of any state in the nation when it comes to sending innocent people to death row.
Conservatives have always been in favor of small government, a government that protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that upholds the promise of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Any government program that involves taking away someone’s life and freedom deserves the closest scrutiny.
Upon such examination, I’ve learned that the death penalty does not improve public safety. States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those that do not, and Louisiana is the most prominent example. Each year, from 1989 through 2017, our state had the highest per capita murder rate in the U.S. (an average of 12.4 murders per 100,000 people). That’s 29 years in a row.
While the death penalty does little to enhance public safety in our state, its high cost does have a significant fiscal impact on Louisiana taxpayers. According to a national study, it costs $1 million more to house and care for a death row inmate over his or her lifetime, compared to an inmate in the general prison population. That’s just one way in which the death penalty is more expensive.
State Senator Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge), takes note of an additional cost: “The death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana,” Claitor said, but when it is, “the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers. As a result, I believe life imprisonment is a more efficient means for just punishment and protection of society.”
Mind you Claitor is no bleeding heart: “As a former criminal prosecutor in the Orleans Parish Office of District Attorney,” he said, “I am well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet, the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity.”
As conservatives, we should be focused on looking at the areas of government where we can make a system that is fairer, more cost-effective, and capable of producing safer communities. The reality is that many states are saving money today because they got rid of the death penalty, and that’s money they can reinvest in solutions that actually decrease crime and make society safer.
The exorbitant amount of money spent on cherry-picked death penalty cases contributes to a near majority of murder cases going unsolved. The country has an average clearance rate for homicides of only 51 percent. Additionally, thousands of rape kits sit untested while police departments claim they do not have the resources to process them, and only 19 percent of property crimes are solved. Police chiefs rank the death penalty as the least effective tool in their arsenal and say more resources are what’s needed to actually prevent and solve crime.
Bear in mind, as well, that the injustices caused by having the death penalty on our books in Louisiana are not limited to those who are falsely accused or the taxpayers footing the bill. The system of capital punishment also does an injustice to victims’ families. They often get trapped in a legal process that routinely takes decades, often without coming to the resolution that allows for emotional closure.
Nobody wants to be entangled in America’s legal system, and we should never subject the families of murder victims to that ordeal. The death penalty takes these people — people who have already suffered greatly — and becomes a part of their lives for decades.
Louisiana’s system also fails to provide them with badly needed services such as counseling, relocation, and childcare, services that would help victims rebuild their lives instead of dragging them through the legal system. The money squandered on the death penalty could help pay for those services.
Because of these problems, my own faith greatly informs my opposition to the death penalty. As a Southern Baptist, I have been taught that life is precious, that redemption is real, and that we must not interfere with God’s plans. I wanted to close that gap in my life beliefs, as have many other Evangelicals and Catholics.
A bipartisan coalition of Louisiana faith leaders supported our state’s historic criminal justice reforms of 2017, and I think the same thing can happen to end the death penalty. Another encouraging sign of change happened in 2018, when a Louisiana State Senate Judiciary Committee approved a death penalty repeal bill on a bipartisan vote, with Republican Senators Claitor and Fred Mills, of Parks, voting in favor.
Claitor is part of a growing movement of conservative Republican state legislators re-thinking capital punishment. So far in 2019, there have been Republican-sponsored death penalty repeal bills introduced in seven states — Wyoming, Kentucky, Kansas, Montana, Missouri, New Hampshire and Washington — with more to come. We hope a bill takes shape here in Louisiana. A report from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty shows a significant increase in Republican state legislators opposing the death penalty in recent years (2012-2017).
Many nationally prominent conservatives are also on record as opposing the death penalty. They include such luminaries as syndicated columnist Michele Malkin, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law & Justice, and the man known as the Funding Father of the conservative movement, Richard Viguerie, who was an adviser to President Reagan.
Gone are the days of the “tough on crime” narrative. Those policies have failed the citizens and communities of Louisiana for too long.
There are smarter ways to reduce crime. This is why many conservative students on college campuses across the state are much more open to re-considering their views. They see that the death penalty is not working, and that as conservatives and people of faith we should care about the people who are impacted by this. This evolution in perspective is why I think my generation will drive change on the death penalty.
People are starting to realize that many long-held views do not solve the crime problem or make society safe. In fact, the opposite often occurs. They have made our society less safe. It’s important that we start to make inroads. Getting rid of the death penalty will save Louisiana much more than time and public resources. It is sure to save the lives of innocent people, something conservatives, people of faith, and supporters of small government like me increasingly believe is the right thing to do.
Marcus Maldonado serves on the advisory council of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, and in that capacity attended last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
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