Can Libertarians Be the Middle Ground on the Death Penalty?

by Caitlin Grimes

Last year, Nebraska became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Unlike other states, Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan. There are conservatives, progressives, and libertarians serving in the state senate, but there are no Republican or Democratic caucuses influencing votes. As such, the historic decision proves how much common ground there is between people of all political persuasions when it comes to capital punishment.

In a society where many issues are viewed through the lens of the political right and left, the voice of the middle is often lost. Identifying as a libertarian can often be difficult when both sides seem unwilling to let you have a seat at the table. However, it can also be a blessing, as you can find the common ground between two very polarized sides. I find this to be especially true when it comes to the issue of the death penalty.

So where is the common ground that both sides can stand on to start what this libertarian sees as a much needed conversation on the death penalty?

An Argument for my Conservative Colleagues 
Eliminating abortion is one of the most supported issues of the Republican platform. But if the GOP is committed to protecting innocent life, it also needs to speak out on its other threats. Many Republicans dismiss abolishing the death penalty as unimportant, claiming that it only kills the guilty. This view fails to understand the full impact of capital punishment as a policy prone to error that puts innocent life at risk without making us safer.

Of the 1,435 executions in the modern era, there have been more than 155 wrongful convictions. That is roughly one exoneration for every nine executions. If conservatives truly value human life and wish to protect the innocent, the death penalty has no place in society.

There are other conservative reasons for opposing the death penalty such as the “eye for an eye” fallacy. There is no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent for committing such heinous crimes. The fact is that society will never end violent crimes by responding to them with more violence.

The death penalty is also very expensive, costing billions of the taxpayers’ money every year. This should be a concern for someone who identifies as fiscally conservative. Take California for example: though it has the nation’s largest death row, it has only executed 13 individuals to date (most recently in 2006). Yet the Golden State has still spent $4 billion on housing inmates on death row since 1978.

Traditionally, conservatives have placed a high value on limited government, which is another reason to fear the death penalty. It gives the government a tremendous power – the power of life and death – which can be abused. As a person who shares some conservative values, it concerns me when we give the government the power to execute its citizens, especially when innocent individuals suffer the consequences.

Issues of cost and scope of government should also concern my friends on the more progressive side of the political spectrum. That $4 billion spent on the death penalty in California could be better served going towards other purposes and programs.

An Appeal to My Progressive Friends
Though we like to have faith in the morality of our government, sometimes it is time to be realistic. The current criminal justice movement is a prime example. Decades ago, we gave the government power to imprison individuals for drug use and dealing. One trillion dollars and countless lives later, American society is starting to regret that decision.

Just as with the drug war, men and women of color are more likely to face a death penalty sentence than their white counterparts. In fact, the odds of an execution are dozens of times higher if the victim is a white female than if it is a black male.

Even if you do not believe that this is enough cause to eliminate the death penalty, it is certainly a valid reason to start a conversation about capital punishment. I think we can all agree that sending an innocent individual to their death should give us all pause. After all, how does this make us any better than those who perpetrate murder?

The death penalty is an issue that should bring us together, not drive us apart. There is an argument on both sides for its complete repeal, even though we may disagree on many other issues. Those of us in the middle would welcome a discussion on capital punishment.

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