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Op-ed: It’s time for Utah to re-examine the death penalty

Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Director Ralph Dellapiana protests firing squad legislation at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.
Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Director Ralph Dellapiana protests firing squad legislation at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.
Chelsey Allder, Deseret News

Debate and discourse in the public sphere is how we make better policy. We at Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty have heard from people across the state that it’s time for a more robust public debate about the death penalty. Long gone are the days where the death penalty was a partisan issue. Now, Utahns of every political background are expressing concerns about a death penalty system that takes a great deal of time, energy and resources and gives us little more than worry in return.

A close examination shows that the death penalty runs counter to many core conservative ideals. We’re thrilled to be able to unite conservatives who oppose or question the death penalty. By raising the profile of this life-and-death issue, we can help our state move toward better policy.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had the opportunity to attend numerous Republican Party conventions, Lincoln Day Dinners and other political and community events. The supportive reception isn’t surprising. This is an issue that many conservatives have thought long and hard about and ultimately concluded that it runs counter to their beliefs of limited government, protecting innocent life and being fiscally responsible.

A poll we took earlier this year quantified what we’ve been experiencing in these discussions: 64 percent of Utahns, including 58 percent of Republicans, supported replacing the death penalty with life in prison. When the arguments are laid out, it’s not hard to see why.

As conservatives, we constantly rail against an ever-growing government. The death penalty is about as big as the government gets. Can the government be trusted to justly end a person’s life? Nationally, since the late 1970s, almost 160 individuals have been exonerated from death row due to evidence of their innocence. In that same time there have been around 1,500 executions. An error rate of 10 percent is 10 percent too high when an innocent person’s life hangs in the balance.

Thanks to television shows like "CSI," people are under the impression that the system is error-proof because of the rise in DNA evidence and testing. The reality is that DNA evidence is only available in 5-10 percent of these kinds of cases. As conservatives, our belief in the sanctity of innocent life should extend to death row. Justice can’t ever be served when even one innocent person is wrongfully executed.

The death penalty is consistently more expensive than life in prison because of the additional preparations for a capital case, the separate sentencing phase and post-conviction appeals. According to Utah’s own Legislative Fiscal Analyst’s Office, it costs in excess of $1.6 million more to carry out a death sentence than if the same person were sentenced to life and ultimately died in prison.

Limited taxpayer resources could, and should, be spent in our criminal justice system in much better ways. These resources could be spent on mental health programs, rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, rape kit testing or many other criminal justice programs that would keep us much safer than the death penalty does. Instead, we spend it on a punishment with no greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment, which often takes 30 years or more to reach a resolution.

While capital cases slowly snake through the judicial process, there’s more than a fiscal cost — there’s a human cost. Families of crime victims are brought along for the decadeslong process. Instead of being able to move forward with their lives, these families must wait through decades of high-profile appeals, all while being forgotten as their loved one's murderer becomes a household name. This is cruelty.

Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty will continue having these conversations with the public. Utah came very close to repealing the death penalty during the 2016 legislative session, and we’re hoping that fight is won during the 2018 session next year.

Darcy Van Orden is executive director of the Utah Justice Coalition, an organization dedicated to educating the community on commonsense reforms to the criminal justice system. Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is a project of UJC.