Recently the North Dakota Parole Board granted early releases to 56 inmates. This was done in an effort to facilitate resources in light of coronavirus. South Dakota, on the other hand, opted to grant no early releases.
The South Dakota approach to parole eligibility has been problematic for years, with a heavy burden on taxpayers. In this year's legislative session, our Legislature once again rejected the opportunity to address the inequities which exist. South Dakota's current incarceration rate is 880 persons out of each 100,000 residents. This incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country and exceeds the national average of 716 per 100,000.
Our state prison population includes many inmates who are ineligible for parole despite the fact they may be elderly, disabled, physically unable to do harm, or substantially rehabilitated.
South Dakota's anachronistic overcrowded prisons are a burden on our taxpayers. One cause of our overcrowded prisons is a South Dakota law providing that an inmate who has received a life sentence is ineligible for parole. This includes individuals who have received life sentences for homicides ranging from 1st-degree murder to manslaughter.
As explained by Sen. Art Rusch, retired circuit court judge, South Dakota's current laws make no distinction in life sentences for 1st-degree murder, which involves premeditation, and life sentences for manslaughter, where there is an absence of premeditation.
There is no consideration given to the underlying mens rea (intent) for the offense. Only three states in the U.S. follow this antiquated approach.
Sen. Rusch attempted to address this unfairness through SB138. Sen. Rusch's bill was shot down under the rubric that "life means life," and those serving life sentences should never be eligible for parole.
This opposition is unjustified. Our criminal justice system should balance the principles of restraint (protection of society), rehabilitation (of the offender) and retribution (punishment).
Our current laws relating to parole eligibility provide a perpetual roadblock and are seemingly premised only upon the justification of retribution. It makes no sense to continue incarcerating a substantial number of inmates who pose no threat to society (no need for restraint), who have experienced substantial rehabilitation (living lives as model citizens in incarceration) and who have already served decades behind bars (punishment).
SB138 would not have solved all the problems with South Dakota's perpetual incarceration syndrome, but it was a step in the right direction. Our Legislature was wrong to reject SB138.
Vermillion, March 24