SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota man sentenced in 1999 to nearly 60 years in prison for molesting boys while working as a counselor at a juvenile correctional center will be the first person to have a hearing after the state, facing rising prison health care costs, launched a new "compassionate parole" system for seriously ill and elderly inmates earlier this year.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles on Tuesday will consider the case of Darwin Heuer, 72. State corrections officials couldn't reveal details of his medical condition, except to say he had a serious illness from which he's unlikely to recover and needs extensive medical care.
Officials said Heuer has been in a nursing home since the end of July under a different program called extended confinement, which gives inmates access to specialized medical care.
"He is in a facility to care for his needs," Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk said. "I would say that he is no longer a danger to society."
It wasn't immediately clear if Heuer has an attorney who could comment on his behalf. Heuer is a former boot camp counselor who admitted in 1999 to molesting six boys while they were serving time at the now-defunct Custer Youth Corrections Center.
South Dakota passed its compassionate parole bill this year , putting it among at least 45 states with a medical parole law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The move came at a time when prison health costs have grown in recent state budget years, from $15.9 million in 2013 to $23.9 million in 2018, according to state Department of Health figures.
It's not clear how much money the program will save the state. Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said shortly after the bill was signed into law that cost savings are difficult to predict because the program is subject to the parole board's decision-making.
Kaemingk said cost is one factor in administering compassionate parole but other considerations include whether the department has the capacity to care for inmates in a facility.
"We are not a nursing home, and we do not have the capabilities of a nursing home," he said.
Heuer pleaded guilty to felony charges that included one count of attempted second-degree rape and three counts of sexual contact with a child under 16. Heuer was sentenced to 57 years in prison for a term that would end in 2057, with an initial parole eligibility date in 2030.
Kaemingk said Heuer isn't able to attend the hearing. The department hasn't heard any concerns from the public about Heuer's potential parole under the new program, Kaemingk said.
Under South Dakota's compassionate parole law, eligible inmates include those who are terminally ill, seriously ill and unlikely to recover, or need extensive or significant chronic medical care. High-cost prisoners age 65 and over who have been imprisoned for at least a decade for a Class 3 felony or below, and inmates 70 and above who have served at least 30 years are also eligible.
Inmates also must not be serving a death sentence and their release plans have to ensure their health care expenses are covered personally or by a third party such as private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. In Heuer's case, he might be eligible for Medicare if he's no longer on inmate status, Deputy Secretary of Corrections Laurie Feiler said.
The secretary of corrections can consider referrals for compassionate parole from the inmate's warden or health care provider. The Board of Pardons and Paroles decides whether to grant or deny compassionate parole.
Officials estimate between 50 and 60 people are eligible under the compassionate parole law. Kaemingk said the department has so far considered seven people, with three pulled before they reached his level. Kaemingk has denied one case and referred Heuer and two others to the parole board.