PIERRE | South Dakota’s state prisons won’t get to set a policy for allowing older inmates back into society before they normally are eligible, even if the person is dying or seriously ill.
A panel of state lawmakers reached the decision Thursday. Opponents sounded most troubled about early releases for inmates convicted of violent acts against other people.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 against the compassionate-care approach the state Department of Corrections brought.
Laurie Feiler, the department’s deputy secretary, testified approximately 20 inmates had sentences commuted in some fashion for medical reasons during her career.
Strapped by a tight budget, Gov. Dennis Daugaard has resisted expanding the state prisons for men and women even though they are at record levels of inmates.
The governor has tried other approaches such as sentencing changes.
The only opponent Thursday was Paul Bachand. The Pierre lawyer represents the South Dakota State’s Attorneys Association. They are criminal prosecutors for the 66 counties.
“Lifers are no longer lifers under this, and that’s a concern,” Bachand said.
The department secretary would have decided which inmates would be eligible under HB 1109. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles would have set rules and reached a decision on each inmate the secretary recommended.
The committee stood 3-3 when the roll call reached Sen. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs. The chairman voted to kill the bill.
“I think this is drafted in extremely broad fashion. It would radically change the manner and grant the board an authority frankly most people would be very concerned about,” Russell said. “Things change. Administrations change. Thought processes change.”
The House of Representatives has approved it 48-17 Feb. 14.
State government spends about $100 million per year on the prison system. About $25 million goes to medical care, said Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland. He was prime sponsor.
“It has huge impact,” Brunner said.