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A conservative case against the death penalty

There’s a compelling conservative case to be made against the death penalty, but it’s not what you think.

Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas has introduced AB237, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada and reduce the sentences of those on death row to life without the possibility of parole. It’s up for a hearing Wednesday in Assembly Judiciary. In Nevada, prosecutors can only seek the death penalty for those convicted of aggravated first-degree murder.

The most common arguments against the death penalty aren’t that persuasive. As Ben Botkin reported Sunday, death penalty opponents often cite the cost as the driving reason for eliminating it. Death penalty cases cost about $1.3 million, while a non-death-penalty murder case costs $775,000. That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but government’s primary job is to secure the life, liberty and property of its citizens. That’s always going to cost taxpayers. We shouldn’t allow criminals to expect lighter sentences because society is too cheap to ensure a just consequence.

Another objection is that Nevada doesn’t have the drugs it needs to perform executions. But this is a logistical hurdle, not a valid critique of the death penalty as a policy. It’s also possible to overcome. Other states authorize executions by hanging or firing squad.

Then there is the objection that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment.” But capital punishment was common in colonial America, and today’s methods of executions limit pain as much as possible while ending someone’s life.

While those arguments don’t sway me, this one gives me pause: Government failure and inefficiency is all around us. Consider Obamacare or our public school system. Liberals act like government programs and mandates are magic bullets to fix our societal ills, but conservatives understand that good intentions don’t prevent unintended consequences. Now add in human error, the lack of accountability that comes from being immune to market competition and how political pressure can steer behavior away from what is just.

This is the entity our society is supposed to believe will be right about seeking to end someone’s life 100 percent — not 99.9 percent, but 100 percent — of the time?

That objection has made me consider and reconsider my personal support for the death penalty. It’s why I think Nevada’s approach finds the right middle ground. While government is far from perfect and a thorough appeals process is needed, justice does demand some criminals — Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, and Javier Righetti come to mind — pay with their lives for their crimes. That’s why the death penalty should be an option, but only used sparingly.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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