PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — It’s a busy day in the South Dakota Senate as legislators work to pass or kill dozens of bills ahead of Crossover Day on Wednesday. On Tuesday’s docket was several bills relating to the criminal justice system that would seek to change parole eligibility, mental illness, and sexual contact between prison guards and inmates.
A bill prohibiting sexual contact between prison employees and prisoners was on the consent calendar at the start of Tuesday’s session. The bill passed unanimously with 35 yays from senators and will now move to the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 199, which revises provisions related to a name change for certain crime victims, also passed the Senate unanimously. The bill, introduced by Senator Michael Diedrich (R-Rapid City) would allow victims of human trafficking to change their name without publication of notice or a hearing in open court to protect victims.
Exempting some from capital punishment
The Senate debated Senator Timothy Johns’ (R-Lead) bill to exempt a person suffering from severe mental illness from capital punishment in South Dakota. Johns said SB 159B would provide the choice of “guilty but seriously mentally ill” which would still result in life without the possibility of parole for those defendants. Johns told the Senate that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from mental illness but the number of people experiencing serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder is much smaller. Johns said that his bill would still require a documented history of mental illness.
Senator Brock Greenfield (R-Clark) said that the bill would remove capital punishment as a tool from prosecutors’ toolboxes. Senator Maggie Sutton (R-Sutton) spoke against Johns’ bill saying that psychosis is difficult to diagnose and that severe mental illness should not exempt a person from knowing that murder is wrong.
Senator David Wheeler (R-Huron) urged the Senate to vote in favor of the bill. The death penalty should never be a tool in a prosecutor’s toolbox, Wheeler said. Johns added that this bill would apply to a narrow band of people and the jury, not the prosecutors, would determine whether a defendant was severely mentally ill but still guilty.
The bill passed the Senate with 21 yays and 14 nays.
Senate kills bill to increase parole eligibility
Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion) brought forward SB 172 to increase eligibility for parole for people imprisoned for at least 25 years. Rusch told the Senate that Supreme Court rulings show that young people do not have fully developed brains and that that should be reflected in parole eligibility. Rusch asked the senators to consider why a 17-year-old can avoid life imprisonment, but an 18-year-old cannot.
Senator John Wiik (R-Big Stone City) spoke against the bill saying that he sleeps better at night knowing that violent offenders will remain behind bars. Rusch countered that by saying that every person in the penitentiary is there for a “terrible crime” but said that retribution is only one part of the criminal justice system. Rusch added that parole boards would still be the deciding factor on who receives eligibility.
The bill ended in a tied, 17-17 vote and Lt. Larry Rhoden declaring the bill “lost.”