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Opinion: Ending the death penalty would help Utah’s economy and make people safer

When assessing where to do business, investors and employers look for signs of good governance, fiscal responsibility and evidence-based policymaking. But as a justice measure, the death penalty falls at every hurdle

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Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, discusses the death penalty in Utah at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, discusses the death penalty in Utah at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, as Utah County Attorney David Leavitt looks on.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On Jan. 18, Utah’s Legislature took up a Republican-led bill (HB147) to repeal the death penalty, which was immediately met with widespread and emphatic support.

Backers include prosecutors, conservative lawmakers, victims’ families and business leaders like myself. This groundswell shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ending capital punishment is key to unlocking Utah’s potential.

As a state, we are at a critical juncture. We have a skilled and educated workforce, excellent research facilities, and the infrastructure to support growth. We are one of the top ranked states in the country when it comes to doing business, and Salt Lake City’s new airport presents a tremendous opportunity as we look to graduate from “Crossroads of the West” to “Crossroads of the World.”

However, our continued use of the death penalty presents a major stumbling block.

When assessing where to do business, investors and employers look for signs of good governance, fiscal responsibility and evidence-based policymaking. But as a justice measure, the death penalty falls at every hurdle. It doesn’t make our communities safer. It doesn’t deter crime. Studies have shown that states that use capital punishment have higher homicide rates than those that abolish it. Utah County’s top prosecutor says that pretending it will curb crime is “simply a lie.” 

For something that doesn’t work, it’s also shockingly expensive. Over the last 20 years, Utah has spent roughly $40 million on death penalty cases — and funded only two sentences. Wasting taxpayer money like this sends the wrong message about political priorities. As we emerge from the pandemic, governments should focus on recovery and job creation — not on failed and retributive policies of the past. 

The death penalty also comes with a real and alarming risk of killing innocent people. Since the 1970s, at least 186 people have been exonerated and freed from death row nationwide. This means that for every eight people executed, one innocent person is released. We shouldn’t be publicly funding any system with such an unacceptable rate of error, let alone one with such tragic and irrevocable consequences. 

Given these facts, I join other investors who are signaling their opposition to the death penalty. Galaxy Digital CEO Mike Novogratz has stated we should “choose to invest elsewhere” in the face of “such reckless mismanagement of taxes.” Other outspoken critics include tech giants such as Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and Paul Graham (Y-Combinator). With initiatives like Silicon Slopes, we have an opportunity to cement our status as an innovation hub — but we need to attract companies like these. Let’s not undermine by clinging onto this machinery of death. 

Its continued use also presents a threat to Utah’s prospects in attracting international trade and investment. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced he will make the universal abolition of capital punishment a key priority of his country’s EU presidency. European governments have also consistently said they take urgent issues like the death penalty into consideration when it comes to trade. Pre-pandemic, Utah’s trade with the EU brought $5.5 billion — not to mention 30,000 jobs — into the state. EU investment here totaled more than $23 billion, creating another 25,000 jobs. Then there’s European tourism, which generated $300 million. 

There is no question. The death penalty comes at an enormous cost — to our safety, to our reputation, to our economy. As a conservative and deeply moral state, we should demonstrate a commitment to those values by ending it. 

Jeff Wright is chairman of Actium Partners, based in Salt Lake City. He is a former member of the board of trustees for Southern Utah University and previously served as national finance chairman for Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign.