States truly are the laboratories of democracy. One clear example of this is how Republican lawmakers in “red states” like Utah have been changing our minds about the death penalty.
I know because in 2016 I was the lead sponsor of a death penalty repeal bill that passed Utah’s Senate. Still, only a couple of years before that, the idea of repealing the death penalty shocked me, just as it shocked my Republican colleagues in the Utah Legislature. Today, it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that nearly a third of all state legislators sponsoring death penalty repeal bills nationwide are Republicans.
Legislative bodies often look to see what other states are doing. For us during the 2016 Utah legislative session, part of moving beyond that initial shock involved seeing other Republican-controlled state legislatures encouraging the conversation. For example, just a year earlier, Nebraska’s majority Republican legislature had overridden a gubernatorial veto to sustain their repeal of capital punishment. My reaction was, ’Wow, what made that state change?’
Leading up to the 2016 session I was having coffee with a good friend who provided the answers. He laid out in five or 10 minutes some compelling reasons why the death penalty is a bad idea: It costs more than life without parole, it is not swift justice and it delays healing for murder victims’ families. By the end of that discussion I was thinking that this is something that deserves a legislative conversation.
Then, as I spoke with my Republican colleagues in the Legislature, I discovered we all knew the names of the inmates on our death row, but not the names of their victims. All we were doing was spending a fortune to make these people into celebrities.
Meanwhile, families of the victims struggle to continue with their lives because they’re waiting for an execution to be carried out, and it’s probably not going to be. If we had accepted imprisonment instead of the death penalty, few would know the offenders’ names, we would have saved a lot of money and the families could have moved forward with their lives.
The more I thought about the issue the more I was in disbelief that we let government kill people and that I was a part of that. But I don’t know that many of my Republican colleagues who voted for repeal in 2016 shared this concern. For most of them it had nothing to do with the morality of killing humans; rather it was the delay in justice, the cost of the process and the fact that murder victim family members couldn’t obtain closure. Those were problems we could all agree had to be addressed.
Some started saying, “Let’s just make the process faster.” I explained the appeals process couldn’t be faster unless we poured a lot more money into the initial defense. Costs would skyrocket. And that was the clincher. There was no way Republican lawmakers were going to spend additional millions on the death penalty instead of on education, roads and health and human services.
We ended up passing the repeal of capital punishment out of committee and out of the Senate, and the facts about the system were moving my GOP colleagues into action. In the end, we ran out of time in 2016 to get all the votes we needed in the House; but during my 16 years in the Legislature I had never seen anything like it. Presented with reality, lifelong Republicans began to question many of their foundational assumptions.
State by state, the same thing is happening. The number of Republican state lawmakers nationwide sponsoring death penalty repeal bills has increased tenfold since I was first elected a legislator in 2000. So, don’t be surprised when Utah and other red states do get rid of the death penalty. You’ll know your Republican representatives were being true to their principles of speedy justice, fiscal conservatism and limited government.
Stephen Urquhart is a retired Republican Utah state senator who spearheaded a death penalty repeal effort in the 2016 legislative session. Today, Urquhart is a Global Ambassador for the University of Utah.