Republican Push for More Capital Punishment Echoes Crime Panic of the 1980sRoundup
tags: crime, Capital punishment, death penalty
Duncan Hosie is a writer and civil rights lawyer. A graduate of Yale Law School, he previously was a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford, where he received a master's degree in history.
As the 2024 presidential primary season kicks off, Republican candidates (announced and anticipated) are touting their support for the death penalty amid heightened concern over crime.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently signed two bills expanding capital punishment. One eliminates the requirement that juries unanimously recommend death sentences, while the other makes child rape a capital offense, defying a 2008 Supreme Court decision that such a law is unconstitutional. Last month, former vice president Mike Pence told gun enthusiasts at the National Rifle Association’s annual summit that he wanted to expedite the death penalty for “mass shooters.” And former president Donald Trump — who oversaw an unprecedented spate of executions in the final days of his presidency — has vowed to swiftly execute drug dealers if reelected. In private, Trump has reportedly proposed that the federal government bring back group executions and the guillotine, and televise executions, potentially even the grisly footage of inmates’ death throes.
These Republicans are not the first to use the death penalty as a political tool. Their tactics hark to the 1980s and 1990s, when America had a “political climate” where elected officials “who covet[ed] higher office” had to “constantly profess their fealty to the death penalty,” to quote a 1995 dissent by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Capitalizing on fears of crime, politicians from both parties endorsed the death penalty with vigor — and to great electoral success. The political memory of this era helps explain why Republicans are embracing capital punishment amid febrile anxiety over crime.
In 1972, the Supreme Court held that death sentences as they were then carried out violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. That halted death sentences in the United States for four years — until the court reversed course, upholding new death penalty laws in 1976.
The latter decision, which had the practical effect of letting states reinstate the death penalty, came during a combustible moment of rising crime rates, sensationalized coverage of crime and social unrest that left many voters on edge. To them, the “ultimate punishment” came to represent the ultimate opposition to lawlessness and disorder. Ambitious politicians who embraced the death penalty won their favor. Those who didn’t, risked defeat.
No one mastered this political balancing act better than Bill Clinton. In 1980, Clinton lost his bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas after Republicans painted him as a Democrat who was “soft” on crime. They attacked Clinton for reducing sentences, including the life sentences of nearly 40 people convicted of first-degree murder. It was, by all accounts, a watershed moment. Mounting a comeback bid in 1982, a chastened Clinton promised to be harsher. He won, and drastically cut the number of commutations he doled out in the years that followed. Over the next 10 years, in fact, he meted out zero commutations to people serving life sentences.
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