PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Making violent felons serve all or at least 85% of their prison sentences has cleared its first test in the South Dakota Legislature.
The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed SB 146 on a 6-1 vote Tuesday. The proposal from Republican Sen. Brent Hoffman could be up for debate in the Senate later this week.
Hoffman presented statistics indicating that violent felons are serving roughly one-quarter to one-third of their average sentences.
“This bill attempts to address that incongruity,” he said.
It would cover a long list of offenses: first- and second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree kidnapping, first- and second-degree rape, torture of a human trafficking victim, commission of a felony while armed with a firearm, aggravated assault against a law enforcement officer or other public officer, aggravated battery of an infant, assault with intent to cause serious permanent disfigurement, first-degree robbery, first- and second-degree burglary, first-degree arson, first- and second-degree human trafficking, vehicular homocide, aggravated assault, aggravated criminal battery of an unborn child, riot and felony child abuse.
His lead opponent was Justin Bell, representing the South Dakota Association of Criminal Lawyers.
Bell said South Dakota’s current system encourages prisoners to receive treatment and be rewarded for good behavior. He said the overcrowded prison system doesn’t have the capacity to absorb the increase in prisoners that would result.
Among those testifying in support were Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar, state Attorney General Marty Jackley, Staci Ackerman with the Sheriffs’ Association, Jenna Severyn with the Police Chiefs Association, former Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel, Grant Flynn for the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association, Rapid City Police Chief Don Hedrick, Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum and Moody County Sheriff Troy Wellman.
“They’re always going to be victims,” Wellman said. “They have their own life sentence of being a victim.”
Other opponents included Samantha Chapman for ACLU-South Dakota and Steve Siegel for South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association.
“The state pens are already overcrowded,” Siegel said. He noted the change would limit the discretion of the sentencing judges and the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. “A lot of these inmates need rehab and counseling, and some need hard time.”
“This is, no mistaking, a serious proposal,” Hoffman said in rebuttal. “I do believe serious crimes warrant serious consequences.”
Republican Sen. Mike Diedrich called for the committee to support the change. He chaired last year’s Legislative Task Force on Incarceration Construction Fund. Noting that South Dakota inmates have “at least” a 44% rate of re-offending, he said, “We have more prisoners than we have beds, and it should be the opposite.”
Diedrich continued, “I think this is one of the steps we can take, but we need to take a look at our whole correctional system…We need to put the puzzle together.”
Republican Sen. David Wheeler was the only one to vote against the bill. He said the problem is the prison system doesn’t have enough programming to help inmates.
“That’s where we need to be looking,” Wheeler said. “This is a feel-good bill.”