A major expansion of services in South Dakota’s criminal justice system received final approval Thursday from the Legislature.
The plan calls for more offenders guilty of nonviolent crimes to serve their punishments in their communities, living at home and supporting their families, while receiving addiction treatment and behavior counseling, amid supervision and daily monitoring by court officers and probation and parole agents.
The hope is that greater use of drug courts, DUI courts and veteran’s courts to get defendants into the right programs for their needs, combined with the threat of sanctions for failing to fulfill judges’ requirements, will slow down the numbers of criminals being sent directly to state prisons to serve months or years behind bars.
South Dakota is forecast to otherwise need a second women’s prison and yet another men’s prison in the next 10 years. The House of Representatives voted 63-7 for the massive reforms package, which calls for spending millions of dollars more annually on community personnel and treatment services as a way to avoid more than $150 million in prison construction costs and the ongoing expenses of more guards and prison personnel.
The legislation’s passage came less than a month after Gov. Dennis Daugaard opened the 2013 session by calling for major reforms in South Dakota’s criminal justice system. His call to action was followed the next afternoon by Chief Justice David Gilbertson asking the same of lawmakers.
House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said Thursday the changes were probably 20 years overdue.
“Consciously or not, we really had a penchant for incarceration,” he said.
Although they are in opposite political parties, Hunhoff spoke several times about his admiration for the Daugaard administration on the criminal justice initiative.
Hunhoff also praised the court system for its previous advocacy for some of the changes.
“This is a much bigger step than I would have imagined we would take in one legislative session,” Hunhoff said.
Daugaard, a Republican, and Gilbertson, who was a Democrat before he was appointed to the nonpartisan post of judge, set the changes in motion in March, when they and members of their staffs began collecting information and advice. About 400 people were contacted, and 36 meetings were held.
Eventually, Daugaard, Gilbertson and the two leaders of the Legislature’s Republican majorities, Rep. David Lust of Rapid City and Sen. Russ Olson of Wentworth, appointed a task force whose members delivered their recommendations in November. Those were further refined in the past two months.
Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, served on the task force. She said the new approaches for South Dakota have been proven in other states and are tailored to South Dakota’s specific circumstances, such as a prison system with 60 percent of its inmates serving time for non-violent crimes and 25 percent who were sent back in because of parole violations.
“This legislation is smart on crime,” Sly said, an echo of the theme that Daugaard and Gilbertson have been sounding.
The legislation was criticized by two House Republicans, Lance Russell of Hot Springs and Stace Nelson of Fulton. Russell questioned its necessity, saying South Dakota’s prison rate is comparable to the national average, while Nelson said the 33-page bill was pushed through too fast and should have been broken down into many smaller pieces of legislation that would have received more time in hearings.
Lust said the package was “a shining example” of how a major piece of legislation should be researched and assembled. He emphasized that defendants will benefit as human beings if they succeed in improving themselves through the expanded services.
“The tears that are shared in a drug court graduation are very real,” Lust said.
The task force report concluded that adding 596 to 755 prison beds by 2022, along with the expenses for operating two more prisons, would cost $197 million to $212 million during the next decade.
“Our goal when setting public policy should not be simply to put more people in jail,” Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, said. “I hope we will not head down that road.”
Joining Russell and Nelson in voting no Thursday were Brock Greenfield of Clark, Dan Kaiser of Aberdeen, Isaac Latterell of Tea, Betty Olson of Prairie City and Elizabeth May of Kyle. The two Republican senators who voted against Senate Bill 70 on Jan. 24 were Tim Begalka of Clear Lake and David Omdahl of Sioux Falls.