South Dakota House backs “truth in sentencing” bill

March 1, 2023

PIERRE — A bill to upend the state’s parole system for violent offenders is one step from the governor’s desk.

A majority of the House of Representatives went against the pleas of a former Department of Corrections secretary and the House Majority leader on Tuesday and passed Senate Bill 146, dubbed a “truth in sentencing” bill by its author.

John Hult with South Dakota Searchlight says the House vote was 53-17. The Senate passed the bill 32-3 on Feb. 3. The Senate will need to vote once again to sign off on two minor amendments added by the House Judiciary Committee before the legislation would head to Gov. Kristi Noem for a signature or veto.

If she signs the bill, people convicted of any one of the 13 violent crimes listed in the first section of the bill would need to serve their full prison terms. Those who commit one of the 10 other violent crimes listed in its second section would need to serve 85% of their terms before parole eligibility.

Rep. Sue Peterson, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House, told the chamber that violent crime has spiked, citing figures about a spike in felony case filings from state’s attorney’s offices and referencing high-profile crimes committed by parolees. There were 13 officer-involved shootings investigated last year, Peterson said – a record number for the state.

“Most of those involved people on parole or offenders with a history of violent offenses,” Peterson said.

Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, spoke of the importance of “truth in sentencing” for victims, so that when a judge gives a sentence of seven years, “it means seven years.”

Also on board was Rep. Greg Jamison, R-Sioux Falls, who said the bill would help ease public concerns about sentencing as they read stories about parolees committing new crimes.

“What Senate Bill 146 does is restore confidence in the justice system,” Jamison said.

That confidence won’t improve public safety, according to Rep. Tim Reisch, R-Howard, who served as Department of Corrections secretary for more than a decade, including a stint as interim DOC secretary under Gov. Noem.

Success in corrections is a matter of swift and certain sanctions, rehabilitation programming in prison, and parole supervision, he said, and removing the third plank puts citizens at risk.

“If this bill passes, even more violent crimes are likely to occur, because they’ll be unencumbered by that pesky parole agent,” Reisch said.

The initial shock of a prison sentence tends to push inmates to consider casting off their anti-social instincts through rehab programming, Reisch said. It doesn’t take long for that to wear off, he argued, and a longer sentence does little change that.

“As the months and years wear on, the value of that sentence becomes less and less,” Reisch said.

Reisch was echoing comments made to South Dakota Searchlight by his DOC successor, Denny Kaemingk.

Reisch made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the bill, restoring parole but requiring those convicted of violent crimes to serve 20% more time before becoming eligible.

Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, urged his fellow representatives to support Reisch’s amendment. He initially supported the bill, but “the more I learned, the less I liked it.”

The House majority leader cited statistics from the latest Division of Criminal Investigation report on crime in South Dakota, pointing out that crime overall is down 12% from five years ago. Burglary, rape and simple assault arrests have all dropped, he said.

State’s attorneys and sheriffs have told Mortenson otherwise, but the representative told his fellow lawmakers that reality doesn’t appear to align with the day-to-day work of law enforcement.

“I know that what they’re telling me is true in their lived experience, but it’s not true in the numbers,” Mortenson said.

Rep. Dave Kull, a former police chief, voted against the amendment and for the bill. Kull said he respects Reisch’s position, but that “this is a bill that ought to pass on its merits or fail.”

Rep. Mary Fitzgerald also backed the bill. She rejected the argument that it would endanger public safety, saying it addresses a significant concern for constituents across the state.

“The problem we have in South Dakota is that people who commit violent crimes are only serving half their sentences,” she said.