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State officials: Specialty parole unit helps trim fugitive parolee numbers in half

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State officials: Specialty parole unit helps trim fugitive parolee numbers in half

Sep 11, 2023 | 6:36 pm ET
By John Hult
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State officials: Specialty parole unit helps trim fugitive parolee numbers in half
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The minimum security center of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, pictured on Feb. 16, 2023. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

An effort by state and local agencies to capture fugitives from parole has nearly halved the number of such “absconders” tracked by the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

The Absconder Apprehension Unit was formed last December and began its work in January, around six months after the launch of a collaborative group called Safe South Dakota. That group, formed in the summer of 2022 and comprised of the mayors and local law enforcement officials in Sioux Falls and Rapid City and state officials, has monthly phone calls to discuss public safety issues.

Safe South Dakota membership

  • Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken
  • Rapid City Mayor Jason Salamun
  • State Secretary of Corrections Kellie Wasko
  • Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead
  • Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar
  • Pennington County Sheriff Brian Mueller
  • Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel
  • Rapid City Police Chief Don Hedrick
  • Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum
  • Ryan Brunner with Governor Kristi Noem’s Office
  • Greg Sattizahn, South Dakota state court administrator
  • Minnehaha County Commissioner Jean Bender

The specialty parole unit was formed in response to the high number of parole absconders, who are parolees who’ve lost touch with their parole officer. 

Most parolees in South Dakota are not absconders. Parolees typically number 3,000 or more, with a few hundred absconding at any given time.

The unit’s parole agents serve as the primary points of contact for local law enforcement officers who find absconders during their day-to-day duties. The number of absconders fell by 100 from a high of 470 after the unit’s first month of operations.

Officials in Sioux Falls and Rapid City repeatedly pointed to absconders as responsible for a jump in violent crime in each city in the runup to the 2023 legislative session. During that session, lawmakers passed and Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill requiring those convicted of most violent felony crimes to serve all or nearly all of their prison terms without the option of early release on parole. That law, which took effect July 1, was dubbed “truth in sentencing” and passed with broad support in both chambers. 

A joint press release from Rapid City and Sioux Falls, Minnehaha and Pennington counties and the state DOC sent Monday morning said the Safe South Dakota group “jumpstarted the creation and ultimate passing of Senate Bill 146.”

The same release said that the number of absconders fell to 256 at the end of July – just over half of what the release called an “all-time high” of 486 from 2022.

As of Monday, the DOC website listed 258 absconders.

The release also notes that parole agents now use a “knock and talk” approach to communicating with non-absconding parolees, described as a “proactive” approach that involves getting out into the community and meeting parolees in person, sometimes on weekends or evenings.

“The parole division has worked very hard to ensure that there are multiple interventions to decrease criminal activity involving parolees, and we continue to work on initiatives to decrease crime in South Dakota,” DOC Secretary Kellie Wasko said in the press release.