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May 22, 2013 10:05 PM

Prison, Pardons, Paroles

Sioux Falls, SD

It was not David Unruh first time in front of the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles on May 16. According to Board member Jack Hieb, the 52-year-old man was arrested more than ten years ago for burglary. Later on, he was paroled, but arrested again for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl. The South Dakota Sex Offender registry reveals he was also convicted of sexual contact with a six-year-old girl. He has five years left of his prison sentence. 

"Our first job, and I think I can speak for every member of the board, is to protect society. If we believe that person poses a substantial risk in a way that will harm somebody, then we're not going to parole them," Hieb said.

The Board once again denied Unruh's petition. The nine members often see repeat offenders, like Unruh who have previously been paroled, but are sent back to prison after violating the conditions. The group meets every month and holds hearings all over the state. Not all criminals are called before the Board. Hieb says last year, 80 percent of compliant inmates were automatically paroled.

"Meaning they never saw the board. They simply went out via that legislative mandate, pursuant to the grid," Hieb said.

Every year, thousands of criminals are prosecuted in South Dakota, and end up in prison. Depending on the crime, many of them do not serve their full sentences behind bars and are paroled out.

The grid is a spreadsheet which uses a formula to figure out when a criminal is eligible for parole based on the type of crime committed and the length of the sentence. 35-year-old Kristine Baker is one example. She was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2008 for meth possession. 13 months later, she was let out on parole. The type of crime she committed, her offense, and her sentence length was the formula to determine 13 months as the date she was eligible for parole.

Minnehaha County State's Attorney Aaron McGowan recalls Kathy Gourley and her case from 2009.

"She received the maximum for a class three felony, which is 15 years in the women's penitentiary. It was a first offense and a class three felony. Her first parole eligibility date would be four years and six months and that was an embezzlement case of $640,000!" McGowan said.

McGowan says it is an example that pre-determined release dates may not always fit the crime.

"As a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a prosecutor in Minnehaha County, that's frustrating to me. I don't think that's enough time for that," McGowan said.

The grid that pre-determines parole dates is not for criminals serving life sentences, those who have committed violent crimes, or repeat offenders like Unruh. It is used instead only for the men and women who are behind bars for crimes like substance abuse, burglary, or other non-violent crimes.

Brady: Should some of these people get second chances?

"I think they have to. I think we have to. There's a couple of reasons for it. We can't afford to keep them all. If we were just going to lock them up and throw away the key, we'd bankrupt the state," Hieb said.

The other reason for paroling certain criminals may surprise you. Hieb said parole is a way for officials to supervise offenders, and transition them back into society.

"We're a lot more apt to get to somebody who has intent to re-offend if we've got a parole officer supervising that individual than if we let them flat that number, in other words, let them reach the end of that sentence and say, ok, you're free to go," Hieb said.

McGowan said parole is not a get out of jail free card, because criminals are closely monitored for whatever time is left on their prison sentence. And that, he adds, may satisfy even the criminal's victims.

"Any chance we have to make a victim whole, as long as we have somebody on paper and can collect restitution and hold that hammer over their head that they will serve additional time if they don't comply with the courts directives and orders," McGowan said.

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