Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, on the House floor during the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight)
The state House of Representatives passed a bill to impose mandatory minimum sentences on anyone who gets four or more driving under the influence convictions.
HB 1170 comes from Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, who lost his grandmother to a drunken driver who had nine DUI convictions.
In its original incarnation, four DUIs would have resulted in a year in prison for those with four DUIs, three years in prison for fifth offenses and five years for those with six or more.
The original bill also barred repeat DUI offenders from parole eligibility.
The bill that passed 58-12 Tuesday afternoon was amended to earn the support of lawmakers who voted against the version that passed 8-5 out of a House committee. The bill’s next stop is a Senate committee.
The amended bill allows judges to suspend sentences through participation in one of the state’s DUI courts. It bumps up the minimum penalties to two years for a fourth offense, four for fifth offenses and six for sixth and subsequent DUIs, but requires the final year of each sentence to be served on parole.
Karr told the House that the change was meant to reflect the importance of supervision to public safety.
When we start talking about people that are in that fourth, fifth and sixth category, we're talking about people that have had numerous, numerous opportunities to get this figured out.
– Rep. Dave Kull, R-Brandon
“Part of that amendment came through suggestions from the Department of Corrections regarding that parole piece,” Karr said. “I heard from a lot of folks in law enforcement, as well as corrections, on how important the parole process is.”
House Majority Whip Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, was among those who voted against HB 1170 in committee but switched his vote Tuesday. Stevens said he understands the importance of the issue, in part because his father was an alcoholic. He changed his mind when Karr agreed to encourage the use of DUI courts.
“What’s really important about that is that they have shown over the years that their rehabilitation is really at a high level,” Stevens said. “There may be other institutions out there that have a high success rate, but I do know for the DUI court, recidivism rate is only 20%.”
Republican Rep. David Kull, a former police chief from Brandon, also voted against the bill in committee. Like Stevens, he switched his vote because of the amendments. Kull said the change is about accountability for those who fail to heed the lessons of their first few convictions.
“When we start talking about people that are in that fourth, fifth and sixth category, we’re talking about people that have had numerous, numerous opportunities to get this figured out,” Kull said.
Opponents included Rep. Tim Reisch, R-Miller, who served as DOC secretary for more than a decade, including a stint as interim secretary in 2021 and 2022.
Reisch argued that the cost would be too high, noting that “we are bursting at the seams in our women’s prison.” Lawmakers are being asked to fund a new $60 million women’s prison this session, and to fund a new penitentiary at several times the cost in the years ahead.
“If we start passing criminal justice laws based on unique individual cases that had a horrible outcome, we’d better start piling up a fortune for prisons because that’s the road we’ll be on,” Reisch said.
Correctional data suggests that the swiftness and certainty of a sanction are more important than its severity, Reisch argued. He did offer that the bill “is in much better shape” because of the amendments.
Karr countered that the bill was borne not only of his own personal story, but from the stories of others and the collection of data on lax sentences.
“It’s not just about one instance, we’ve heard several stories over the years,” Karr said.
Rep. Kadyn Wittman, D-Sioux Falls, asked Karr what the cost might be, asking for figures from a prison-jail population cost estimate. The original bill would have cost more than $9 million over 10 years for the DOC, but Karr did not ask for an update with the amendment. Gov. Kristi Noem recently signed a bill repealing cost estimate requirements for public safety bills.
Wittman said she planned to vote against the bill regardless of the cost, because it still imposes mandatory minimum sentences.
“I’ve seen that negatively impact people, especially individuals that are struggling with substance use disorder in our state,” Wittman said.
Just before the successful vote, Karr told the House that his bill was meant to force a “societal shift” in thinking about drunken driving.
“We need to stop thinking about DUIs like they’re harmless,” he said.
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