PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota should make sweeping changes in its criminal justice system to lock up only dangerous offenders while treating more of those convicted of nonviolent crimes outside prison walls, which could save up to $212 million in prison costs in the next decade, a state panel has recommended.
The 18-member work group, appointed by state leaders from all three branches of government, recommended an expansion of programs that keep drug and alcohol offenders out of prison by placing them in intensive treatment programs. Other proposals include focusing probation and parole services on offenders most at risk of getting into trouble, changing sentencing laws and putting more people convicted of low-level felonies on probation.
The panel was appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders. Those officials will decide which of the recommendations are submitted to the South Dakota Legislature in January.
The 13-page report said the package of recommendations would improve public safety, hold offenders more accountable and cut prison costs by focusing spending on violent, chronic and career criminals.
If nothing is done, South Dakota would be faced with building two new prisons — one for men and one for women — in the next decade, the report said. The reforms would avoid adding up to 755 prison beds in the next decade, saving between $197 million and $212 million in prison construction and operating costs through 2022, according to the report.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, a member of the work group, said he is optimistic the Legislature will pass the proposals.
“I think it’s probably time for us to reassess our lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy and try to be smarter about it and maybe get a better result,” said Tieszen, a former Rapid City police chief.
“People you’re afraid of, you put in prison. People you’re mad at, you try to come up with ways to change their behavior,” Tieszen said.
Gilbertson said the proposals seek to keep nonviolent offenders, particularly drug and alcohol offenders, out of prison by treating them in community programs that can more effectively cure addictions. That saves money and reduces the number of offenders who commit new crimes, the chief justice said.
“The dealers are still going to go to the pen, as are violent offenders and repeat offenders,” Gilbertson said.
The report said South Dakota’s inmate population grew from only 546 in 1977 to more than 3,600 in July, outpacing the national prison growth rate. South Dakota now has 416 inmates for every 100,000 in population, far higher than the average incarceration rate of 307 per 100,000 in the six neighboring states.
In addition, 45 percent of inmates released on parole wind up back in prison within three years. The report also found that the majority of the state’s inmates are nonviolent offenders, with drug possession outnumbering every other kind of offense.
The report recommends expanding existing drug and alcohol courts in some of the state’s larger cities and creating some new ones in other areas. Those special courts keep offenders out of prison if they stay clean, complete treatment programs, undergo intensive supervision, support their families and work or attend school full-time.
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Gilbertson said.
An intensive monitoring program for people convicted of alcohol offenses also could be expanded to cover those convicted of drug offenses. Another recommendation would let people end their probation or parole early if they comply with rules, allowing supervisors to focus on those most likely to misbehave and wind up back in prison.
Another recommendation would change sentencing laws to focus punishment for drug offenses more on those convicted of selling or manufacturing.
The panel also proposed that people convicted of low-level felonies be placed on probation unless public safety requires that they be locked up.