The Senate floor in the South Dakota Capitol at Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/SD Searchlight)
A bill to lengthen prison stays for violent offenders earned an endorsement from all but one member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning.
Senate Bill 146 saw testimony from nine supporters beyond its prime sponsor, Sen. Brent Hoffman, R-Sioux Falls, including police chiefs, sheriffs and Attorney General Marty Jackley.
The bill would abolish parole altogether for 13 violent crimes and require inmates to serve 85% of their sentences for 10 others.
In South Dakota, a judge’s sentence rarely reflects a defendant’s actual prison term. All inmates are offered a shot at early release, with release dates calculated based on offense type, criminal history and a host of other factors.
That mismatch is significant, Hoffman argued. Average sentences for the 13 most serious crimes listed in his bill were 26.2 years, according to a Legislative Research Council memo on SB 146. The average amount of time served was 8.2 years.
“This bill attempts to address that incongruity,” Hoffman said. “It is an attempt to affect the violent crime that has ravaged our communities.”
Victims served by truth in sentencing
Victims are often frustrated to learn that those who commit the most serious offenses might return to the streets sooner than a sentence suggests, according to former Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel.
“Those convicted of a crime like first-degree manslaughter are still eligible for all the perks and privileges afforded by the Department of Corrections,” Roetzel said.
Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar, who said his prosecutors are awash with cases of parolees committing new violent crimes, described similar frustrations. Haggar, who worked as a deputy public defender before taking the helm as Sioux Falls’ top prosecutor, helped write the bill.
“It’s a mirage right now,” Haggar said of current sentences. “This bill can fix that.”
Jackley was among several supporters to reference the federal sentencing system, where no parole is offered. Instead, inmates are sentenced based on a complex set of sentencing guidelines that come with around 50 days of “good time,” Jackely said, as an incentive for inmates to behave behind bars. Their prison terms are followed by a period of supervision overseen by court service officers with smaller caseloads than state parole agents have and a wider array of programming to help ex-inmates return to the community upon release.
“There are significantly more resources in the federal system,” Jackley said.
Hoffman’s “truth in sentencing” proposal would move South Dakota closer to the federal system, where, according to Jackley, “if you make a mistake on supervised release, you’re going to have to answer for it.”
Opponents call bill hurried, short-sighted
The three opponents who testified Tuesday morning seized upon that language. Lobbyist Justin Bell, representing the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told lawmakers that SB 146 institutes a single piece of the federal system – no parole – without addressing the issue of programming or adjusting the existing sentencing limits for the crimes involved.
One such crime is manslaughter, which Bell said carries a sentence of no more than 15 years in the federal system and in most states. In South Dakota, people convicted of manslaughter can get a life sentence.
Most states that institute a truth in sentencing system do so comprehensively, adjusting sentences and supervised release programming at the same time. Those states also see increases in incarceration rates.
In South Dakota, he said, SB 146 would do the same, but without creating a “carrot” incentive for good behavior or putting a system in place for managing a violent offender’s return to the community.
“I think the worst possible thing for some of these cities is to just release people out from prison without supervision,” Bell said. “That’s what this bill does.”
Samantha Chapman of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the bill casts aside rehabilitation, to the detriment of the families of inmates.
“We have to believe that people can change for good,” Chapman said.
Hoffman countered during rebuttal that the loss of parole eligibility only impacted the most serious crimes, and that the public expects such crimes to carry serious penalties.
Hoffman urged committee members to focus on victims.
“Our first and foremost consideration should not always be the inmates incarcerated,” Hoffman said.
Jackley, meanwhile, said that judges will still have the option to suspend part of a sentence, which would mean that even inmates without a parole option would spend the length of that suspended prison term under supervision after being released.
Senators endorse reform
The senators who moved to pass the bill spoke of the importance of truth in sentencing as part of a larger look at the state’s criminal justice system. Assistant Majority Leader Mike Diedrich, R-Rapid City, said repeat offense rates are too high.
“We have to find a solution. This is one of the steps we can take, but we need to look at our whole correctional system,” Diedrich said.
The lone no vote on Tuesday came from Majority Whip David Wheeler, R-Huron. Wheeler argued that the bill will do little to change things on its own, calling it a “feel good bill” that will have unintended consequences.
Referencing first-degree rape, which is the rape of a child younger than 13 and one of the crimes for which no parole would be offered, Wheeler said there are important reasons to preserve an option for earned early release.
“That person who gets that charge now is going to have zero incentive to go to sex offender treatment,” Wheeler said.
SB 146 now heads to the Senate floor.
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