Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on Montana’s Board of Pardons and Parole.

HELENA – For South Dakota prison inmates who committed crimes after June 1996, parole can be almost automatic – if they complete a detailed parole plan by a pre-determined date.

“Under the ‘new’ system, parole release is tied directly to conduct in prison,” says Laurie Feiler, deputy secretary of the South Dakota Department of Corrections. “There was a real desire to create an incentive for good behavior, rather than (reduction of sentence) for just not being bad. …

“Also, there was a desire to make it more predictable.”

South Dakota inmates who complete their “individual program directive,” which includes treatment, training and a parole plan, and have good conduct in prison, can be released without even seeing the state’s Parole Board.

“If an offender has a Friday release date … there is a very high chance they will be released on that Friday,” says Ed Ligtenberg, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Parole.

A Montana legislative committee studying the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, which is under fire by some for being too arbitrary in granting parole, may take a look at South Dakota’s system.

Montana’s board has broad discretion to grant or reject parole for state inmates, for almost any reason.

Mike McKee, chairman of the Montana board, says it should maintain that discretion, as well as its policy of visiting with every inmate face-to-face before deciding whether to parole them.

“You need to have that personal interaction,” he says. “If you go to a system of just seeing the person on some kind of grid, that’s not an optimal system. You’ll pay for that in some fashion.”

South Dakota paroled about 1,500 inmates in fiscal 2013, compared to about 870 in Montana – even though South Dakota’s population is about 80 percent of Montana’s.

At the same time, South Dakota had 887 parolees who were sent back to prison last year for violating parole, while Montana had only 123.

The number of revoked paroles in Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota also is far fewer than in South Dakota.

Michael Winder, spokesman for the South Dakota Corrections Department, says one reason for the high number of revocations is because the state simply has a large number of people on parole.

In 2012, for example, according to federal statistics, South Dakota had 436 people on parole for every 100,000 citizens – almost four times the rate in Montana.

***

With the exception of South Dakota, inmate parole systems in neighboring states are mostly similar to Montana’s system.The governor appoints members of the parole board in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota, and those states’ boards have broad discretion on deciding whether to grant parole.Wyoming, for example, has “absolute discretion” when deciding parole, says Patrick Anderson, executive director of the Wyoming Board of Parole.However, Wyoming recently launched an initiative to “reduce subjectivity” in its parole decisions, developing a parole “suitability rating” based on each inmate’s disciplinary record and establishment of a parole plan.

Montana’s Parole Board has a matrix of its own, that it uses to rate whether an inmate is a good parole risk. Its “risk assessment scale” scores an inmate based on his or her education, criminal record, drug-and-alcohol problems, prison record and other factors.

The higher the score, the greater an inmate’s risk of failure is thought to be.

In South Dakota’s system last year, 949 inmates successfully completed their individual “program directives” and were paroled without seeing the board.

If they don’t complete their directive, or are on the pre-1996 “old” system, they go before the board for an in-person review.

“The new system does a lot better job of focusing prison time on folks who are doing time for more violent offenses, and chronic offenders,” says Feiler, the SDOC deputy secretary. “It basically puts the offender in charge of their release date.”

Coming Tuesday: What’s up with the Parole Board and convicted murder Barry Beach’s latest request for commuting his sentence?

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

(1) comment

Alan H Johnson
Alan H Johnson

What South Dakota has may put some predictability into the parole system, but I'm not in favor of totally taking discretion away from the Board of Pardons. Certainly reforms may be needed to make the system less arbitrary. Everyone should have a fair shake in front of the board. I don't believe anyone should be discriminated against just because their crime got a lot of publicity. Community input is important too, but we should remember that too often the level of community opposition stems from who the victim was, rather than the crime itself. If a victim is an established member of a community, there will likely be community protest of a parole release. If the victim was a transient, likely no one will raise a peep. But yet the crime, say deliberate homicide, would be identical..

But there other factors that can only be considered by first hand review and interview of the parole applicant. I think reform is in order, but I don't think discretion of board members should be totally removed from the process.

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