Efforts to change manslaughter sentencing inconsistencies


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A number of bills were introduced in the last legislative session in Pierre to reform the criminal justice system in the state when it comes to sentencing for certain felony crimes, including manslaughter.

KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke has been looking into the issue of inconsistent sentencing in manslaughter cases, including one case where the very same charge brought four different sentences.

Retired Judge and South Dakota State Senator, Art Rusch introduced legislation that would have reduced manslaughter sentences to a certain number of years, not for life. South Dakota is currently only one of three states that hands down a life without parole sentence in the case of manslaughter, which is an unintentional killing.

Rusch also proposed that if someone under the age of 25 committed that kind of felony, they would be eligible for parole at age 50. Those efforts failed in the legislature, but Rusch isn’t giving up. He’ll reintroduce new legislation this winter.

Some say it’s time for this kind of sentencing reform in the state, while others say South Dakota’s current system is just fine the way it is.

“When you’re asking whether it’s appropriate, no, every manslaughter should not be punished by life without parole. We reserve that for second degree murder and first degree murder. But I do think it’s appropriate that it be one of the things available to people; available to judges as a sentencing tool,” Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said.

“In this state we have first degree murder, second degree murder and manslaughter– all can go to life. It’s triple jeopardy– you can even have them plea down and still give them life. You’re supposed to tier down,” said Anne Rice, mother of man serving 60 years for manslaughter.

In Monday night’s KELOLAND News Investigation at 10 p.m., “Manslaughter: Unequal Time”, we’ll look at the huge disparities in manslaughter sentences in South Dakota, even when it comes to the very same crime.

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