East and West sides of the state are working together to create safer communities

Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 8:23 AM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - Police chiefs, county sheriffs, state attorneys, the Department of Corrections, and the Governor’s office are taking a collaborative approach to protecting not only their cities but the Mount Rushmore state as a whole.

Safe South Dakota was formed in the summer of 2022, to bring representatives from agencies across the state together to share challenges and accomplishments in their fields. Since the formation of the group, a top priority has been taking care of parole and probation absconders.

To aid in that effort, the Department of Corrections makes a list of their top absconders each week, making it easier to ensure violent offenders go back where they belong.

“Unfortunately there are times where they are committing more crimes when they are absconding,” said Chief of Police Don Hedrick.

“Both the police department and the sheriff’s office participate in going out and looking for high-risk parole absconders. When we pick those people up who are identified as high risk in our community, they don’t sit for weeks and months in the county jail, they go automatically back to prison,” Brian Mueller, Pennington County Sheriff said.

“For us, that’s helping to prevent more violent crime,” continued Hedrick.

“I think the most impressive thing is the progress we’ve made with the Department of Corrections. We had a huge issue with parole absconders in the state of South Dakota. It started with informal conversation about ‘what are we going to do about this?’ The next thing we knew, Kellie Wasko (South Dakota Department of Corrections), was on those calls, and very interested in solving problems. And we have cut our parole absconders almost in half, in a very short amount of time. It just shows the power of working together,” said Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel.

Taking these offenders back to prison helps free up beds at the local jails, which according to Mueller, are a premium.

“Our local jail beds are a premium. Like you’ve known for a number of years we’ve been running close to capacity here at the Pennington County Jail, and the rest of them, the jails across the state are no different than that, so we have to use those jail beds wisely. If a repeat probation or parole is taking up weeks or months of jail bedtime a year when they’ve already been sentenced to prison, and we can get that individual back to prison for the rest of their time or whatever sanction they need to go sit out, frees that local jail bed up for us to be able to get dangerous people in our community that need to be in that bed. So that’s a win-win,” said Mueller.

“County jails are supposed to be for local people being held for temporary periods of time. They’re not supposed to be detention centers for people from the Department of Corrections. So we’re working hard, again if people need to be back in prison, get them there quickly,” continued Roetzel.

In an effort to prevent those crimes, last year’s legislators proposed “truth in sentencing.”

“We had this wild idea of having truth in sentencing. If someone gets a 20-year sentence, they should serve 20 years. It was always so hard to help victims understand how parole percentages worked and good time credit, and how with a 20-year sentence, you’re serving a fraction of that,” Roetzel said.

Being able to have different agencies communicate effectively, could help keep crime levels down across the state, as long as offenders are being held accountable.

“Hold local even low and mid-level repeat offenders accountable at a different level. And we’re working collaboratively together and with the courts to ensure we can develop a mechanism to hold people accountable in our community,” Mueller said.

“If we’re making sure that folks are doing what they’re supposed to be doing when they are out on parole, I think that can lead to a safer community, and that’s kinda the goal behind this whole taskforce,” said Hedrick.

Roetzel, Mueller, and Hedrick all say they don’t know what the future will look like when it comes to this task force, but they’re excited to watch this program grow.

“We have a lot of work left to do. This will be an ongoing process. I feel confident that we do currently have the right group of people having these conversations and making positive impact,” said Mueller.

“You might think there were these communication mechanisms prior to this collaboration, and it just simply wasn’t happening. We weren’t always taking that step of picking up the phone and calling and working through the issue. I think we all feel a lot more comfortable doing that now,” said Hedrick.

“We are ideally situated in the Black Hills to make positive change. Sheriff Mueller is amazing, Chief Hedrick, and our new mayor. All of us are coming in with such positive attitudes and so much motivation to really bust down the status quo. Enough of doing things the way they’ve always been done let’s be creative let’s think new ways and let’s really make big changes. So to have all 4 of those leadership positions be on the same page and wanting to make positive change and consider new and creative ways to do it, I think you’re going to be blown away with the things well accomplish,” said Roetzel.