Many may argue that the death penalty is worth this cost because of its deterrence value. There is the thought that the death penalty prevents murders because it deters potential murderers who would not be deterred by life imprisonment alone.
However, the deterrence value of the death penalty has never been proven. Indeed, a study done by two professors of the University of Colorado found that 88% of the country’s leading criminologists do not believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime. The study concluded, “There is overwhelming consensus among America’s top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty.”
Such doubt in the deterrence effect on potential murderers has also penetrated the minds of the general public, as a 2008 study found that only 34% of the public believes that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder.
Potential murderers are rarely in a position in which they strongly consider the consequences of that crime and even if they are, it is extremely unlikely that a potential murderer would be willing to kill when faced with life without parole but would not when faced with possible execution ten to twenty years after the crime. Many murders happen in the heat of the moment, when the offender is irrational and would not consider the possible legal consequences of his/her crime. Even in planned murders, the offender rarely expects to get caught, and if he/she does, it is unlikely that he/she would be deterred by any punishment.
Of course, the question of deterrence is completely irrelevant if the potential murderer does not know his/her state’s punishment for the crime of murder, which is a likely possibility. And for South Dakota, if the potential criminal does know the situation of the death penalty, such knowledge is very unlikely to deter. Consider, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1979 in South Dakota, there have been over 410 murders in the state. Also since 1979, there have been five people sentenced to death in the state. And of those five people, only one (a volunteer) has actually been executed. The chance of receiving a death sentence if you kill someone in South Dakota is barely over 1% and the chance of actually being executed is even less.
For more information on the death penalty and deterrence, click here