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OPINION: Victim notification system needed in South Dakota

Many victims of violent crimes live in fear that someday the person who attacked them or a member of their family will get out of prison and hurt them again. That’s why all but three states have a crime victim notification system to alert victims of changes in an offender’s status.

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Unfortunately, South Dakota is one of the states without a notification system, a fact that could change. A 20-member task force has been meeting to develop an online system that will offer crime victims automatic notifications through phone calls, text messages or email.

A lack of funding has kept the state from notifying victims if an offender has a parole hearing, is released from prison or has his sentence commuted. This year, the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office has a $790,000 budget to develop a crime notification system and plans to have it operating by July 15, 2015, said Attorney General Marty Jackley.

It is about time South Dakota joined other states in creating a crime victim notification system.

But why will it take until 2015 to have it in place? How much effort and expense can it be to call crime victims or send them a simple postcard? A website could take time to create, but a two-year time frame to develop any form of notification is too long, in our view.

The parole hearing for Joaquin Jack Ramos is an example of South Dakota’s broken victim notification system. Ramos was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1994 for the shooting death in Rapid City of his pregnant girlfriend, Debbie Martines. When then-Gov. Mike Rounds commuted Ramos’ sentence in 2010, making him eligible for parole, Martines’ family were only told after, too late for them to prevent it.

Martines’ family and Ramos’ ex-wife, Angela Hanson, who says she and her children were victims of domestic violence by Ramos, recently complained that they only received two weeks’ notice of Ramos’ first parole hearing.

“We feel that the notification system is completely broken in the State of South Dakota and ask for prison officials, legislatures and our current Gov. Dennis Daugaard to take steps to implement a program that makes sense for all involved,” Hanson wrote in an email to the Journal. “We hope that a future system will include online notification along with a web based program that allows victims of crime access to current status of inmates, including their locations.”

The fact that victims of violent crimes are informed about a change in an offender’s status as an afterthought, if at all, is a failure of South Dakota’s criminal justice system. Keeping crime victims fully informed and protecting them from further harm should be as important to the state as rehabilitating criminal offenders. South Dakota needs the proposed State Automated Victim Information and Notification System, and a launch date of July 2015 is too long to wait.

-Rapid City Journal