The South Dakota Legislature will debate the death penalty again this session. Democratic Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-18/Yankton) and Republican Rep. Steve Hickey (R-9/Sioux Falls) lead a bipartisan team of sponsors on Senate Bill 121, which would remove death from the penalties permitted for Class A felonies and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.
Last year the Legislature killed Rep. Hickey's death-penalty repeal in House State Affairs by one vote. This year, the death penalty debate goes first to Senate State Affairs, where SB 121 sponsors Senator Hunhoff and Senator Billie Sutton (D-21/Burke) are the only Democrats among seven Republicans. But those Republicans will see the names of House colleagues among the sponsors, including former judge Rep. Tim Johns (R-20/Spearfish), conservative Rep. Scott Munsterman (R-7/Brookings), and formidable lawyer and Catholic Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown).
Conservatives looking for a reason to repeal the death penalty get a reminder from one of South Dakota's greatest liberals, former U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk, that the death penalty does not make fiscal sense:
In Texas, which boasts of the largest death row in the country, a death penalty case in 1996 cost taxpayers an average of $2.3 million, which is about three times the cost of imprisoning the accused in a single cell for 40 years. Other states report similar savings when the death penalty is not the issue in a criminal trial.
If the excessive cost of a death penalty trial is compared to a nondeath case, each state could increase police presence, police training and other matters designed to curb criminal activity, which is where the money should be spent [Jim Abourezk, "Is Death Penalty Too Costly for Taxpayers?" that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.02.02].
Expect serious, non-partisan fiscal and moral arguments in Senate State Affairs... and, we hope, on the floor of both chambers as this important bill advances.