What will ‘truth in sentencing’ mean for South Dakota crime victims?
Prosecutors, judges already work to keep victims informed on parole dates
Legislators in the Senate Chamber during the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Anyone who listened to last week’s debate on Senate Bill 146 – often referred to as “truth in sentencing” – might think victims have no idea how long criminals will stay in prison before they’re paroled.
Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, said when a sentence comes down, “you think, wow, OK, we have some measure of justice for what’s been done to me or to my family.”
“And then a few years later … you find out that that person who you thought was going to be in prison for 10 years is now going to be walking your streets again,” Hansen said. “It’s almost like a re-traumatization.”
Hansen wasn’t the only one to hit that particular note in the House of Representatives, where SB 146 passed 53-17 on its way to the governor’s desk.
“This is a deception on the public, the very people we are supposed to protect,” said Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, R-Spearfish.
Parole can be complex and confusing, but the reality isn’t quite so dire. The justice system has multiple backstops meant to ensure victims can understand when a defendant is eligible for parole, can check on changes to eligibility as the months and years pass, and are informed when an inmate is about to be released or face a parole board hearing.
Rhetoric vs. reality
“We always work with our victims,” said Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar, who helped write SB 146 with its prime sponsor, Sioux Falls GOP Sen. Brent Hoffman.
Haggar and other prosecutors consult with victims as they build cases against defendants. Large offices like Haggar’s employ victim-witness assistants who communicate directly with victims at each stage of a case.
During plea agreement negotiations, Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman said his staff will let victims know approximately how many years of actual prison time a sentence might bring if the defendant takes the deal.
After the sentencing, he said, the victim is once again given a rundown of probable prison time and parole dates. The figures are not exact, but “I think we do our best to describe the actual time a defendant will sit,” Wollman said.
“It’s tough for us, because it was always a ballpark figure,” Wollman said.
That’s where SB 146 comes in. Prosecutors like Wollman and Haggar support “truth in sentencing” not because victims are blind to the reality of parole, but because the complexities of the parole system make it all but impossible to offer certainty in conversations with them.
Initial parole dates aren’t set until after an inmate lands in prison, for example. The Department of Corrections calculates it based on the crime committed, the inmate’s criminal history and individual needs for programming, such as chemical dependency or mental health treatment.
That initial date can be pushed back if an inmate misbehaves. It can also come sooner under some circumstances, based on good behavior and program completion.
As several lawmakers pointed out, inmates who follow the rules needn’t see the parole board to walk away from the prison. That’s by design – the idea being that inmates who want to avoid a parole hearing will work harder on their rehabilitation programs – but the reality of that moving target can be frustrating for victims and the prosecutors who work with them.
“It starts to get hairy when you get into the good behavior and those earned discharge credits,” Haggar said.
Haggar and Wollman’s teams aren’t the only source of parole information for victims. The state of South Dakota maintains two electronic resources: a State Automated Victim Notification system (SAVIN) that anyone in the state can use to track inmate parole dates, releases, new arrests and the like, and an offender locator on the Department of Corrections website that lists parole status.
Tony Mangan, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said there are 3,832 people signed up to track specific cases through the SAVIN system. A total of 8,710 people have registered to SAVIN since its launch a little over nine years ago.
In practice, Haggar said, none of those tools offer the peace of mind that SB 146 does. If Gov. Kristi Noem signs the bill, people convicted of any of 13 major violent crimes would be ineligible for parole. Those convicted of any of 10 others would be required to serve 85% of their sentences before release.
The moving target of the current parole system is a source of anxiety for victims, Haggar said, but the bill will help ease that anxiety.
“That’s good for victims, because what they want to know is ‘how long will I feel safe?’” Haggar said.
Judges previously calculated parole dates
Prosecutors are legally obligated to keep victims informed if they request information. A voter-passed crime victims bill of rights called Marsy’s Law, which passed in 2016, ensures that much.
There were laws in place to help victims keep track of sentences before that, as well. The SAVIN system was built after the Legislature’s passage of an adult criminal justice reform package in 2013. And until 2011, judges were required to calculate and announce a defendant’s estimated parole date from the bench. Former Gov. Bill Janklow pushed that requirement in the mid-1990s under the banner of “truth in parole.”
Lawmakers voted to repeal that law with 2011’s House Bill 1020. Rep. Jon Hansen and Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, both voted for that repeal, and they both voted for truth in sentencing this session.
In the House Judiciary Committee in 2011, on which Hansen served, Assistant Attorney General Max Gors told lawmakers that the bench calculations were problematic for judges, inmates and the Department of Corrections, in part because of the myriad considerations that factor into a parole date.
Defendants would bring incorrect estimates from a judge with them to prison, where their actual parole date would be calculated.
“Inmates come in and say, ‘Well, the judge said I’d get out in 25% and you say it’s 60%,’” said Gors, who has since died. “What would you say? Well, the judge didn’t know you had three prior convictions from out of state or this, that or the other thing.”
Instead of offering a bill to improve the parole date calculations, Gors asked lawmakers to repeal the rule. Lawmakers sided with Gors, voting unanimously for repeal with no committee debate and scarcely any debate on the House or Senate floor. No lawmaker voted against it in 2011.
Hansen told South Dakota Searchlight last week that he didn’t recall the bill, which appeared during his first year as a lawmaker.
The 2023 proposal is an improvement, its supporters say, in part because it sidesteps thorny issues of parole date calculation and victim requests for notification, at least for violent crimes, and focuses only on mandatory sentence lengths. Wollman said that “some of the comments” on the 2023 truth in sentencing bill “missed the point of the bill.” The value of SB 146 for victims, he said, is that it delivers a level of certainty that previous efforts have not.
Judges might start imposing lighter sentences to make up for the lack of parole, he said, but at least those sentences will be all but impossible to misinterpret.
“What this does is bring clarity to our sentences and what they mean,” Wollman said.
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