Big change to South Dakota's violent parole system heads to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk
“There's a difference between passing bills that will actually make a difference, and those that sound tough and make us feel good,” one opponent said. “This bill in its current form is the latter.”
PIERRE, S.D. — A bill making big changes to the parole system in South Dakota is on its way to the desk of Gov. Kristi Noem, with Senate Bill 146, a proposal reducing or eliminating parole for certain violent offenses, passing the House of Representatives 53-17 on Tuesday, Feb. 28.
For supporters of the bill, brought by Sen. Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls, it is a way to respond to the specter of rising violent crime in the state and offer assurances to victims and families that the sentence handed down by a judge will end up being the sentence served.
“A very large percentage of violent crimes, in fact, are committed by an extraordinarily small percentage of the population,” Hoffman said. “And those are the violent criminals that our citizens want to see locked up.”
Under current South Dakota law, the highest felonies, Class A and B, are not eligible for parole.
Yet on the first offense of Class C felonies, including the first degrees of rape, manslaughter and kidnapping, state law allows a parole hearing halfway through the sentence handed down by a judge.
“This is a deception on the public,” Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, of St. Onge, said of the current parole practices.
Hoffman’s change deals with 23 different violent crimes, raising the amount of time served before a parole hearing can be held to 100% of the sentence for the more severe and 85% for the less severe.
While he and supporters on the House floor, including Rep. Carl Perry, of Aberdeen, argued that nothing in the bill keeps violent offenders from seeking treatment or programming while in prison, opponents laid out concerns about overcrowding prisons, and a lack of transitional oversight making recidivism rates even higher.
“There's a difference between passing bills that will actually make a difference, and those that sound tough and make us feel good,” Rep. Tim Reisch, of Howard, a new member in the chamber who previously served nearly a decade as the secretary of corrections in South Dakota, said during his speech on the floor. “This bill in its current form is the latter.”
Responding to the criticism of overcrowding, Hoffman noted that the state is investing in a new men’s penitentiary that will add around 1,000 beds to the corrections system and that the change will not affect anyone currently in prison or in trial, as it will only begin applying to crimes committed after July 1.
Reisch, who was also an outspoken opponent during the House Judiciary committee hearing last week that saw the bill squeak by 7-6, brought an amendment to accomplish some of the same goals — adding significant time before a parole hearing can be held — while still offering judges some latitude and incentivizing inmates to remain on good behavior while in prison.
The amendment was defeated 44-26.
Another criticism came from Rep. Mike Stevens, of Yankton, who opposed the idea of the Legislature taking discretion out of the hands of judges who are closer to the facts of unique cases.
“I'm kind of tired of people picking on our judges and our judicial system, they do a really good job,” said Stevens, a lawyer by trade.
Outside of lawmakers, the bill found support among some of the top law enforcement lobbying groups in the state, as well as with Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, whose support substantiated some of the claims from lawmakers that this legislation was much needed in the state’s largest city, which often bears the brunt of violent offenders on parole due to its proximity to the state penitentiary.
“Criminal rehabilitation is important, but so is serving appropriate time for violent crimes,” TenHaken wrote in a Feb. 27 statement on Twitter. “This is a critical bill for the safety of our communities, supported by all law enforcement agencies, and I look forward to the legislature standing up for community safety.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.