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Pen Pen: A Second Chance, Life with Parole?

On January 10, I published a letter from convicted murderer Shane Bell describing the beginning of a typical day in the Jameson Annex of South Dakota State Penitentiary. Bell will spend every morning until dies there, because, like every South Dakota inmate sentenced to life, he has no chance of parole. As the Department of Corrections says (paraphrasing SDCL 24-15-4), “In South Dakota, life means life.”

Bell contends that even those convicted of Class A, B, and C feloniesfirst- or second-degree murder, first-degree aggravated kidnapping, first-degree rape, first-degree manslaughter, terrorism, dealing drugs that kill someone—may be able to rehabilitate themselves sufficiently to deserve consideration for parole:

I have been in prison for about ten years now and have the rest of my life to go. I will never be free again, never drive a car or go fishing on a warm sunny spring day, never spend the holidays with my family around a delicious home-cooked meal.

South Dakota is one of only three states in the U.S. where a sentence of life imprisonment is a mandatory life without parole. The other two states are Alaska and Maine. The other 47 states have the option to give a sentence of life with or without parole. South Dakota does not have that option.

It makes me wonder in this day and age, with the constant talk of “rehabilitation” and “prison reform,” if the State of South Dakota will ever give any opportunity for parole for people doing a life sentence like the majority of other states do. Will the state of South Dakota give lifers a chance to show we can change? Lifers can live an honest, productive, law-abiding life as a member of society. We only need the opportunity to show this can be done. Currently, 47 other states have the ability, at their discretion, to allow lifers to prove themselves as reformed and no threat to society by giving parole to those deemed worthy.

I have done about ten years of the same routine trying to show I am worthy of a second chance at freedom. I, like the majority of lifers here, have a job, stay out of trouble, have a good disciplinary record, and attend/practice the religion of my choice. I have family and friends just like you, whom I miss and wonder if I will ever be given a second chance at freedom to be with them.

I ask you, the reader, what is your opinion on giving a person with a life sentence a second chance to prove he has changed? Do you think South Dakota prisoners should have the possibility for life with parole, as 47 other states have the option to do, to prove they can be productive, responsible citizens?

Nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, but that is how we learn in life. I believe everyone deserves a second chance, don’t you?

Shane Bell, inmate #10443, South Dakota State Penitentiary
Shane Bell #10443, South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, SD, 2018.12.27.

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  1. Steve Pearson 2019-01-23 10:10

    He should just be happy that he isn’t executed.

  2. bearcreekbat 2019-01-23 12:37

    To answer Shane’s question, yes, rehabilitation is a worthwhile goal and should be a goal of SD’s prison system.

    At this time, however, rehabilitation does not seem to be a goal. Instead, in SD our policies are designed for two other goals: (1) retribution/revenge to satisfy public anger; and (2) incapacitation to satisfy public fear.

    Anger and fear lead to irrational choices, such as punishing and excluding women and children seeking our help on the border, not to mention men who want nothing more than to contribute to our society’s economic well being. Rehabilitation is a rational means of helping fellow humans in need become productive members of society and mninimizing the cost to the public of maintaining massive prison populations.

    Given our State’s propensity for irrational anger and fear, however, we so far have decided to use tax dollars for punitive and incapacitative purposes rather than a purpose that actually benefits the public, such as rehabilitation. Such a decision is well worth reconsideration and ultimate rejection.

  3. Ryan 2019-01-23 12:39

    Our criminal justice system is barbaric. It is the worst among first-world countries. Putting a person in a cage for decades at a time without the opportunity to prove rehabilitation is inhuman. I have found that many people who support ridiculously long prison sentences are conservative types, and are often religious. It’s ironic that conservatives would support the most expensive and least effective method of behavior management. It is also ironic that religious folks who believe in a forgiving god would themselves deny forgiveness. Classic religious conservatives. They know better than their own god.

  4. Jason from SD 2019-01-23 12:42

    If you murder someone, you should never get out of prison.

  5. Ryan 2019-01-23 13:00

    I very much disagree with Jason. A lot of killers are still adolescent when they commit their crimes. I struggle with the conflict of holding young people forever accountable for their actions in certain circumstances (like the commission of crimes) while simultaneously protecting young people from themselves because they aren’t fully developed to the point of being accountable for their actions (like minimum ages for contracts, military service, sexual consent, property ownership, etc.).

    I also don’t think letting a person sit in prison for 40 or 50 years does anything good whatsoever. Not only does it cost millions of dollars to keep one person locked up that long, there is a good chance that most people can be rehabilitated and can be productive members of society despite their crimes.

  6. El Rayo X 2019-01-23 15:34

    Ryan, Shane Bell was not an adolescent when he put seven bullets into Bobbi McClure’s head and two in her back. The same with the three rounds he put into he sister, Tammy Anderson. I guess my question is, did he run out of ammo or did Tammy just get out of range? Also, was his act barbaric? You seem to like that word.
    Mr. Bell seems to be over the whole murder/attempted murder thing, hell it’s been almost 10 years for him. The family of the victims are probably still working through it. Contact them and drop off your two cents.
    Speaking of money, even at $.25 an hour, has Mr. Bell paid back any of the $33,000 in public defender money? That might be a sign of good faith on his behalf. That and maybe expressing some remorse in his letters.

  7. Ryan 2019-01-23 15:48

    El rayo x, you read much more into my comment than was there. I simply disagree with Jason’s blanket statement that killers should never be let out of prison. I am not at all saying all killers deserve parole. I’m not saying anything about the particular inmate this article referenced. But if you would like, I would be willing to talk with anybody about criminal justice reform, including the families of victims of crimes.

  8. mike from iowa 2019-01-23 15:58

    I’m guessing the one thing holding South Dakota’s prison system back is wingnuts who absolutely would rather throw away redeemable lives if it means they won’t have to raise taxes for humanitarian relief.

  9. Debbo 2019-01-23 16:19

    I spent 2+ years working as a case manager in a minimum security prison in SD housing inmates near the end of their penitentiary sentence, parole or probation.

    Some are rehabilitable, some not. You would probably be surprised at the number who are not interested in rehabilitation because they are accustomed to the safety and security of prison life. It’s known; it’s routine; needs are met.

    Rehabilitating requires much more than education. It requires extensive mental health work, not because inmates have significant mental illnesses, but because of the way they have learned to think.

    It’s often multigenerational too. I made a home visit to an inmate’s family. One of 3 little boys, all under 7 yo old, calmly told me about their routine for “When daddy’s in prison.”

    Although Mr. Bell’s letter sounds reasonable and sound, it is important that you know that in 10 years he has, without question, learned the efficacy of saying whatever gets him what he wants in any situation.

    I cannot emphasize that last sentence enough. The inmates on my case list taught me that endlessly until I finally got it.

  10. RJ 2019-01-23 16:37

    BCB and Debbo..good points of view. To answer your question Shane, there are many flaws in our justice system and many rehabilitative individuals that don’t get adequate support. I would go as far as to say there are people who have killed another person who experience a change ge at their core. With that said, I don’t think you’re one of them. I don’t believe in the death penalty and I don’t wish you any ill will, but you shot someone to death without any extenuating circumstances. There are situations that I believe life with possibility of parole are feasible. Yours isn’t one of them. I don’t agree with Jason and Steve, but it is troubling to hear you say “everyone makes mistakes”. A mistake is running a red light or getting a DUI as a teenager.

  11. Porter Lansing 2019-01-23 17:29

    Debbo knows a manipulator when she sees one. So do I. I spent a career in sales.
    “Hey, Mr. Bell. You ain’t got it so bad. People on the other side of those walls aren’t free, either. They live in South Dakota.”

  12. Roger Cornelius 2019-01-23 18:41

    Hopefully bear can provide more clarity, but I’d think that besides sentencing guidelines there would be mitigating circumstances to be considered, I don’t know what any of those circumstances are in the case of Shand Bell.

  13. bearcreekbat 2019-01-23 19:35

    Roger, the last I knew our SD state criminal justice system doesn’t have sentencing guidelines. The federal system and some other states have guidelines.

    Generally, considerations outside guidelines are permitted these days in cases without mandatory sentences. A few years ago in United States v. Booker the SCOTUS held that mandatory sentencing guidelines violate a defendant’s 6th Amendment rights. Hence mitigating circumstances not addressed by guidelines must be considered by a sentencing judge in cases, absent a statutory mandatory minimum sentence.

    In cases with mandatory sentences, such as life for homicide, the courts never get discretion, but the executive through the governor can consider mitigating circumstances for commutation of sentences or pardons.

    Interestingly, the SCOTUS also recently ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for someone who commits a crime as a juvenile (under 18) is unconstitutional. Hence, despite imposing mandatory minimum sentences on adults, a state is required to give a juvenile an opportunity to demonstrate his or her rehabilitation for parole or early release at some point.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-23 21:42

    I’m not convinced Jason is wrong.

    Taking another human’s life is the ultimate crime. (Arguable?)

    The ultimate penalty (short of capital punishment, which is immoral and costly) is to deny murderers their liberty for the rest of their lives.

    I wonder: does rehabilitation have to lead to release? Suppose a murderer fully rehabilitates—and, by the way, what does that mean? Makes no trouble in prison for X years? Earns a degree? Volunteers for extra work? Shows compassion for fellow inmates? Could it still serve justice to say to the murderer, “Yes, we recognize you you have fully rehabilitated, but your crime still demands that you continue to pay the price of not enjoying liberty during your life”?

    Could we say that the fully rehabilitated murderer gets a chance to do good things with her rehabilitated life, but that she still has to do those good things behind bars?

  15. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-23 21:47

    I do appreciate that discussants here recognize, as highlighted by Ryan, that the columnist above raises two distinct moral questions, the particular and the general: Does this particular inmate deserve life without parole, and does every killer, rapist, terrorist, and aggravated kidnapper deserve life without parole?

    In that order, one can answer Yes+Yes, No+No, or Yes+No. (Answering No+Yes requires overturning some facts of law determined in one particular courtroom.)

  16. Roger Cornelius 2019-01-23 22:05

    I’d think the ultimate test of whether a murderer should be eligible for early release is whether or not you would want a Shane Bell living next door to you and your family.

  17. grudznick 2019-01-23 22:29

    Mr. H, back when the kids used to watch those Star Tracks you seem fond of, they used to erase people’s memories. They could fix them. Make them productive to society and conform to the way “the man” wanted them to be. Imagine, if Mr. Haugaard the Holiness Hisownself, were the one erasing brains and filling them back with emptiness or his own values.

    The horrors.

  18. bearcreekbat 2019-01-24 02:14

    Cory’s analysis falls into the retribution/vengence camp as the only real function of prisons, absent any convincing evidence that a life sentence would somehow deter a murderer more than a 50 year sentence. Focusing only on whether a rehabilitated prisoner “deserves” to be free despite his crime negates both rehabilitation and incapacitation as goals.

    This raises a further question – did the SCOTUS get it wrong when it ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles violates the 8th Amendment? In SD we hold people culpable for crimes if they are 10 years old. If retribution/revenge is the only real goal of punishment then shouldn’t any child, including a prepubiscent killer, be imprisoned for life without parole as society’s revenge for murder?

  19. mike from iowa 2019-01-24 07:40

    Roger C said- I’d think the ultimate test of whether a murderer should be eligible for early release is whether or not you would want a Shane Bell living next door to you and your family.

    I can think, offhand, of about 250 wingnuts in Congress I woulodn’t want living next door to me. Before we get to releasing murderers, we have plenty of work to do releasing wrongly convicted POC from death row and general prison populations and then we still have to fix the sentencing disparities between the races.

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-25 07:11

    Interesting point about the SCOTUS ruling on juveniles, BCB: if its cruel and unusual to lock juveniles up for life without parole, why is it not cruel and unusual to do the same with adults? If we accept the greater rehabilitability of juveniles as a reason to hold out hope for release, then I would have a hard time justifying keeping a fully rehabilitated adult in prison for life.

    But can I grant that retribution is not the sole function of prisons, allow that retrib and rehab are equal functions, and still posit that a prisoner who fulfills the rehab goal may still have some debt to pay toward the retrib goal, and that sometimes, that debt can only be paid by giving up one’s liberty for life?

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-25 07:13

    Roger, the “live next door” test doesn’t help me nail down the moral principles. I wouldn’t want Jason or Steve Pearson living next to me, but that by itself isn’t a fair test for whether they should be in prison for life. ;-)

    (Mike, I’d love to have those Congressional wingnuts living next door to me. Imagine the blog interviews, photos, and scoops I could get!)

  22. bearcreekbat 2019-01-25 11:38

    Cory, there is another important consideration for your inquiry about repaying a debt as part of the retribution function of prisons. That is whether retribution is a rational and beneficial function of incarceration at all.

    In other words, how do public policies of vengence serve any rational public interest? While an argument that retribution/vengence could be a deterrent to criminal homicide might be attractive on the surface, we know factually that threats of vengence are not particularly effective deterrents to that crime. And is public veneration of vengence actually a socially desirable trait we ought to inculcate in a society? What are the public benefits that might support such a view?

    At this point I have seen nothing in my life experience that suggests a desire for vengence benefits either the individual or society. Protection of society from further crimes by incapacitation is an important and rational goal of incarceration, as would be deterrence if that actually worked. But vengence?

    And if vengence is not a value we wish to instill in our people, then it fails as any justification for continuing to incarcerate someone that we all agree has been rehabilitated.

    And Cory, I really appreciate youe discussion of these issues as it has helped me focus on something that otherwise may not come to mind at all (this seems true with many of your topics – so thanks!).

  23. mike from iowa 2019-01-25 11:47

    Cory, imagine the discarded Magat hats in your yard when reality and truth finally catch up with those Drumpf supporting tools.

    Keep after them and they will see the lights…..maybe.

  24. Debbo 2019-01-25 13:49

    I can’t think of the word for “make it right” justice. It’s not retributive. It’s meeting with the offended party[ies] and making it right. I don’t think “reconciliation” is the word in looking for either.

    I agree with BCB that justice that’s focused only on vengeance isn’t really very just. The word I’m thinking of involves efforts to make the offended and offender whole. Vengeance makes no one more whole.

    Dang, totally escapes me. 🤔🤔🤔

  25. Porter Lansing 2019-01-25 14:03

    Debbo … Restoration?

  26. Debbo 2019-01-25 14:13

    Ding, ding, ding!

    Restorative justice! Thank you!

  27. bearcreekbat 2019-01-25 15:49

    Pennington County developed a Restorative Justice program in 1997 under the leadership of then Circuit Judge, now SD Supreme Court Justice, Janine Kern, and several other folks. By all accounts I have seen, it has been quite successful benefiting victims and their families, as well as offenders.

  28. mike from iowa 2019-01-25 19:08

    Drumpf opens the government for three weeks w/o wall funding. There, I said it.

  29. Porter Lansing 2019-01-25 19:42

    MFI … It’s no coincidence that the first time the Air Traffic Controllers didn’t come to work in a big group, Trump decided to lose. “The Art of the Failure”.

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