The death penalty has long been the “dirty secret” of America. Politicians have steered away from addressing the topic publicly while using it behind the scenes to advance agendas. According to The Associated Press, capital punishment has not been a major campaign issue in a presidential election in 30 years.
The 2024 election cycle is shaping up differently, as capital punishment is rising to the forefront of GOP politics. In the 2024 cycle, American voters will have to address the death penalty.
Several GOP presidential candidates have commented recently on the issue ― most notably Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump. Both the Florida governor and the former president have made it clear they are some of the most pro-death politicians in contemporary politics.
In the 2023 legislative session, Florida, at DeSantis’ urging, passed two bills that positioned Florida as arguably the most pro-death state in the U.S. First, Florida reduced the standard for imposing a death sentence to the lowest in the country, requiring that only eight of 12 jurors vote to recommend a sentence of death. Before, Florida required a jury’s unanimous recommendation for death ― which is the standard in all other death penalty states (save Alabama, where the jury vote requirement is 10-2).
Second, Florida expanded the death penalty to non-homicide sex crimes against children aged 12 or younger, in a move that is directly at odds with standing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. In 2008, the Supreme Court held in Kennedy v. Louisiana that imposing a sentence of death for non-homicide crimes violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. In approving the law, DeSantis said he believes Kennedy was “wrongly decided,” and that he hopes the “new” Supreme Court will reconsider. In other words, DeSantis has no problem defying precedent and pushing well-established boundaries to appear tough on crime.
So far in 2023, DeSantis has directed Florida to carry out a spree of executions, completing five. A sixth execution is scheduled for Oct. 3, just two days after Florida’s new capital sex crime law goes into effect.
DeSantis’ recent spree of executions appear to be an effort to support his “tough on crime” platform in his bid for the White House. At a press conference in early May, just ahead of signing the warrant for Florida’s fourth execution, DeSantis indicated that his administration would continue executions “at a normal pace.” He said that capital punishment “is the law of the land,” which he is “going to make sure ... is followed.” Since capital punishment also remains on the federal books, voters could expect the same from a DeSantis administration in the White House.
DeSantis’ pitch to “Make America Florida” is not just a slogan. It’s what DeSantis seeks to achieve with a presidential bid in 2024. Indeed, in presenting Florida’s new capital sex crime law, DeSantis said that Florida’s “bold agenda” is “setting the terms of debate for the country.”
Trump has a similar record. He directed an unprecedented string of 13 executions in his last six months in the White House. Under his administration, the federal government completed its first executions in 17 years. Since leaving the White House, Trump has urged the return of barbaric execution methods like the guillotine. Most recently, he called for the immediate death penalty for anyone involved in human trafficking ― which would also contradict the 2008 ruling in Kennedy.
Mike Pence, another presidential hopeful, said in June that he supports a death penalty that is “swift and certain.” This week, Trump’s former vice president called for “an expedited federal death penalty for anyone engaged in a mass shooting.”
In 2024, voters will no longer be able to ignore that capital punishment remains an active element of American life. In contemplating the death penalty, voters must consider more than whether they morally agree with capital punishment.
Ramping up the death penalty puts a significant burden on taxpayers without any real deterrent effect. Studies from across the country have shown that the death penalty is highly expensive for taxpayers, even compared to prison sentences of life without parole. There are additional expenses even before an execution, related to legal costs, pretrial costs, jury selection, trial, incarceration and appeals. As to the actual execution, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent close to $1 million on each execution carried out in the summer of 2020 ― more than it costs to incarcerate a federal prisoner for 25 years.
Further, data shows that the death penalty does not have any true deterrent effect, which was Pence’s cited reason for supporting it. In 2021, the Sun Sentinel reported that “annual murder rates are consistently higher overall in the death penalty states than in the 22 without capital punishment.” According to the Gun Violence Archive, in the more than 100 mass shootings that took place in the first 10 weeks of this year, 82% of the resulting fatalities were in death penalty states.
Ultimately, pro-death policies do little more than impose further trauma on victims and the people involved in the criminal justice system ― all of whom must participate in the drawn-out process created by a death sentence that often does not result in an execution.