SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Nearly 25 years ago, Joaquin Ramos entered the South Dakota State Penitentiary to begin a life sentence for first-degree manslaughter, angry about the circumstances that led him there.

On Aug. 22, he sat down with a reporter during visiting hours in the penitentiary's visitation room. Over the course of about an hour and a half, as other inmates chatted and played cards with family members, he spoke about his time in prison and said if he hadn’t been put behind bars, he would likely have remained the angry person he was when he committed his crime.

Since he arrived in prison, Ramos’ sentence has been commuted from life to 150 years, which makes him parole eligible. Ramos is one of 54 people in South Dakota’s correctional system on a first-degree manslaughter conviction serving life in prison, a sentence that would not be imposed almost anywhere else in the country.

South Dakota is one of three states that currently allows a sentence of life in prison for first-degree manslaughter, now legally designated as a Class C felony.

Raleigh Hansman, a Sioux Falls-based attorney who has defended people facing manslaughter and other homicide charges, said she appreciates the amount of discretion South Dakota courts are given by the wide possible sentencing range for first-degree manslaughter and would not advocate for a narrower sentencing range.

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“The judge has the ability to take everything into consideration, not just the facts of the case, but more the facts of who the defendant is (and) the relationship between the victim and defendant,” Hansman said.

Flexible sentencing

On April 17, Robert Murray died in the South Dakota State Penitentiary where he had served almost half of a 52-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.

Murray is the seventh person convicted of first-degree manslaughter in South Dakota within the past 30 years to have died in prison, but a sentencing range that’s been in place since 1980 means he won’t be the last.

First- and second-degree murder are punishable under South Dakota law by a minimum of life in prison, and a first-degree murder conviction could result in the death penalty. Ramos’ uncle, Angelo Cruz, said he was initially angry about his nephew’s sentence, specifically, but is now convinced South Dakota’s manslaughter sentencing laws as a whole need to be reformed.

“For someone to get life without parole is equal to someone being convicted of murder,” Cruz said.

Though the name and classification of the offense varies from state to state, with most referring to it as voluntary manslaughter, every state uses similar language to describe the offense known in South Dakota as first-degree manslaughter: it’s generally a homicide that occurs when the offender acted in a “heat of passion” and didn't have the intention of killing their victim, as would be the case with murder.

First-degree manslaughter is committed while committing another felony, in a cruel or unusual manner, with a deadly weapon or unnecessarily. An unintentional killing with none of those criteria present is classified as second-degree manslaughter, a Class 4 felony.

South Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington are the three states that allow a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for first-degree manslaughter. Like South Dakota, Washington has no mandatory minimum sentence for the crime, while Oklahoma requires anyone convicted of first-degree manslaughter to be sentenced to at least four years in prison.

In other states, maximum sentences vary, from 61 months in Kansas to 60 years in Wisconsin. The average maximum sentence in the 47 states that don’t allow life in prison is a little over 19 years, and 24 states have maximum sentences of between 15 and 25 years.

According to data provided by the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, of the 130 people currently in prison for first-degree manslaughter in South Dakota, 35% are serving sentences of at least 60 years. More than 92% are serving sentences longer than the national average of maximum sentences in states that don’t allow life sentences. Eleven, including Ramos, have already spent at least 20 years in prison.

Eighteen inmates — all men — are currently serving life without parole for first-degree manslaughter.

“There are obviously a lot of factors that go into a sentence like that,” said Libby Skarin, policy director for the ACLU of South Dakota. “I will say that, without talking about any specifics of any particular crime or particular case, it does make me a little uncomfortable that we’d be looking at life in prison for someone who is convicted of manslaughter versus something like first-degree murder.”

Because the state also has no mandatory minimum sentence for the crime, Jason Boyles, Douglas Scholten and James Arneson all walked free right after their sentencing hearings, while 168 others have been sentenced to anywhere from six months to 350 years in prison since 1989.

First-degree manslaughter has not always been punishable by life in prison in South Dakota. A 1976 statute classified the crime as a Class 2 felony with a maximum possible sentence of 25 years.

In 1980, it was elevated to a Class 1 felony, punishable at the time by up to life in prison, and in 2005, South Dakota’s classification system was changed, and first-degree manslaughter was reclassified as a Class C felony, a designation amended to carry the punishment of what previously was a Class 1 felony.

Pleas and parole

Arnie Berkeland didn’t know Timothy Caffrey before 1981, when Caffrey was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree manslaughter after killing his stepfather at age 17. That didn’t stop him from visiting the South Dakota State Penitentiary throughout the 30 years it took to commute Caffrey’s sentence.

Berkeland isn’t a lawyer — his background is in trucking. His involvement with inmates began in the late ‘70s, when he volunteered to transport inmates to and from a prison farm. He said he took an interest in Caffrey’s case because Caffrey had accepted a plea bargain that reduced his charge from murder to manslaughter, but didn’t reduce what was then a life sentence.

“I, of course, am an advocate for shorter sentences,” Berkeland said. “I’m not a bleeding heart or whatever. I do believe in punishment, but I believe in just punishment, and South Dakota is a little bit bad for that. They tend to mete out long sentences for a lot of different things.”

Caffrey is not alone in pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Since 1989, 85% of those convicted of the charge in South Dakota entered guilty pleas rather than going to trial.

When the state and defense reach a plea agreement, Hansman said, South Dakota judges are required to indicate whether they’re going to agree to the sentencing cap in the agreement. At trial, where there are no plea bargains and no sentence caps, there’s a greater chance of a longer sentence being imposed.

After 10 years of working on Caffrey’s case with the assistance of attorney Ron Volesky and multiple commutation denials, Berkeland said he was nearly ready to give up when he found a woman in Idaho who could speak to the parole board about Caffrey’s home life. Caffrey’s sentence was commuted to 237 years, and he was paroled in 2011.

According to data, South Dakota’s circuit courts have handed down 186 sentences for first-degree manslaughter in the past 30 years. Of those convicted, 20 are on parole and 33 have been released from custody.

Those 53 people served, on average, about 68% of their sentences before leaving prison.

So far in 2019, three people convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the past 30 years have been granted parole.

Ramos believes a change in the parole process in the mid-1990s has unfairly made it more difficult for those sentenced earlier to be granted parole. He said before that change, inmates applying for parole were required to appear at a hearing before the parole board, and now, inmates can automatically be granted parole when they reach certain benchmarks.

Many of those inmates who are automatically paroled, Ramos said, are not actually ready to be released, and he’s been sad to see many come back as quickly as if the prison had a revolving door.