As an elected official, I don’t believe it is my job to simply be a voice for the vocal few who push me to vote a certain way. Public servants aren’t merely a mouthpiece for the majority. Our job, rather, is to study complex issues, invest time and resources into gathering information that the broader public may lack, and make decisions that at times require leadership and boldness. 

That’s certainly the case with the death penalty. Like many conservatives, I long supported legalized executions for heinous criminals and felt like bad people should be executed. But the more I learned about capital punishment, the more concerned I became. And as an elected official, I’ve come to learn that many in the public have not been made aware of the inherent, significant problems with this policy.

That may be changing, at least as demonstrated by three past polls. In 2003, Utah voters were asked their opinion on the death penalty, and 78% of them indicated that they supported it. In 2010, the same question was asked, with 79% support — effectively the same response, given the statistical margin of error.

But two months ago, poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that the number had plummeted to a mere 51% — nearly 30 points in a decade. And what has happened in that decade? Elected officials, advocacy organizations and victims whose lives have been negatively impacted by this policy have been educating the public — and with that education, people have been dropping their support of a flawed approach to criminal justice.

In Utah, the death penalty is actually used very infrequently, yet it results in high financial cost to the state and county — and high emotional cost to members of victims’ families. Studies show that the death penalty costs taxpayers substantially more than cases where life without parole is sought. Utah has had only seven executions from 1977 to date, yet has charged 54 new cases in the past five years alone, resulting in unnecessary costs to taxpayers and a wasteful use of the court system.

Those few who actually are sentenced to death are given media attention while they languish for decades in prison. At the same time, the family members of victims suffer over and over again each time there is a new hearing or appeal. They also endure the uncertainty that comes with years of legal appeals and the possibility that some judge along the way might decide to undo a sentence based on a legal technicality. 

Shockingly, the last two individuals who got off death row in Utah did so after spending more than 30 years there. They both died of natural causes — not because they were executed by the state. The reality in Utah is that the death penalty ends up being life in prison, but at a much higher cost.

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As a commissioner for Utah County and a fiscal conservative, I’m also concerned about the taxpayer resources our county would need to spend to continue to support this failed policy — resources that would be better invested in providing actual consequences to violent offenders and to bring closure to victim family members. This money would also be better spent on the services and skills of our law enforcement officers to reduce violent crime than in maintaining the death penalty, which cannot deliver actual results and re-harms many victim family members.

We all want to hold violent offenders responsible, but we need to recognize that the death penalty simply doesn’t work, is applied to people who are actually innocent, costs significant taxpayer dollars and harms victims by prolonging their suffering. It’s a far better option to simply lock up these offenders and throw away the key — and if the state got it wrong and sentenced an innocent person, they would still be alive to release from prison.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, both conservative Republicans, are sponsoring House Bill 147 this session, which would repeal the death penalty and use life without parole as the primary option of punishing those murderers. I strongly support this bill and urge my fellow elected officials to lead on this issue. More than 20 other states have taken this flawed policy off the table. It’s time that Utah do the same.

Amelia Powers Gardner is a Utah County Commissioner and the former county clerk/auditor for Utah County.

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