After nearly four years of avoiding prison, while violating his probation and other court orders after a 2016 arrest for drug crimes, this week Jason Riis, 36, was sentenced to state prison.
His case dates to March 29, 2016, when he was stopped by Pierre police and found to be high on methamphetamine and benzodiazepines, which is the ingredient in the pain killer Xanax, and on marijuana.
He was charged with felonies. That next year while awaiting disposition of his case, he several time tested “hot” again for drugs. This was during the court-ordered regular testing regime for those arrested on suspected drug crimes.
On Dec. 6, 2016, Riis pleaded guilty to a Class 4 felony of ingesting meth, a crime that could have meant 10 years in prison. The judge at the time sentenced him to five years in prison, but suspended it and put him on supervised probation.
Riis continued to regularly violate his probation by failing drug tests that showed he was “hot” for meth. It meant he served long stretches in the Hughes County jail while his case kept being processed, while he also kept avoiding a prison sentence.
In 2019, he was arrested again and more than once; as late as Dec. 23, for testing hot for meth. He was arrested again Jan. 10, 2020. That brought him back again to state court in Pierre, on Tuesday, Feb. 18, wearing shackles and orange stripes, before Circuit Judge Bridget Mayer.
His attorney, David Siebrasse, told Mayer that Riis’ “plan is to ask the court to put him back out on probation … down in Yankton. He has a sister there. He recognizes he has an addiction.” A job down there will get Riis away from his social network of meth users, Siebrasse said.
Riis read a statement to Mayer, apologizing for “making bad decisions and using meth … I have way too many playmates and they all use meth.”
He hoped Mayer would give him another chance, this time to move across the state, find work and start supporting his daughter, Riis said.
Riis’ parents were in the courtroom, as they have been at his previous court hearings. They had written a letter to the judge dated Feb. 14. Mayer read it silently on the bench on Tuesday, then thanked them for it.
According to the letter filed in the case, Riis’ parents wrote: “We really appreciate what everyone has done and the programs that were available to help Jason with his addiction. We really believe it would have worked if he was able to move away from the people he knows here. He had plans to do so and it fell through at the last minute. So we were working on another plan. We believe he would do well in another community, away from all the distractions here. We would like to ask for leniency on behalf of his daughter.”
Riis’ parents said in their letter that Riis’ pre-teen daughter lives with them because her mother “has addiction problems as well, and is not able to be here for her.”
Hughes County State’s Attorney Roxanne Hammond said the case “was very sad. Not only for Mr. Riis, but in the fact he has family members (here in court.)” Not for the first time, Riis has letters of support written to the judge from people who love him, Hammond said. “It’s always when he’s staring down the barrel of a gun, he promises to make changes,” Hammond said. But it’s getting old, according to Hammond.
“This is a 2016 case,” Hammond said. “And in four years he has not been able to stay sober for any time. We have given him every resource we have and nothing seems to be working. He puts the community at risk with the things he’s doing and he puts his daughter at risk. When he should have been celebrating the holiday with his daughter, he was using methamphetamine.”
As far as leniency in the court system and treatment options and supervision, Riis “has been given everything this community has to offer,” Hammond said. All the while, Riis has been staving off the prison sentence hanging suspended over his head for more than three years and using meth regularly. It makes it look like the full panoply of court services available to Riis to keep him on probation was “enabling” him, Hammond said.
“So I’m going to recommend (a sentence of) 10 years with five years suspended.”
Judge Mayer concurred with Hammond. Mayer told Riis he had admitted to being a habitual offender with previous felony convictions, which resulted in the possible sentence being jacked up to 10 years.
Riis told Mayer he did well on probation for much of the time, and it would be different if he could get away from Pierre. “Really, I’ve only done drugs in this town.”
Mayer cut him off. Riis seems to think “if only he could get out of town,” he would escape the draw of meth and those who use it, Mayer told him. “It’s not true. . . It’s just all over the place.”
Mayer sentenced Riis to 10 years, with five years suspended and credit for the 209 days he’s served off and on in the Hughes County Jail. That will leave 4.4 years, probably less depending on how his previous crimes might affect what “fraction” of the sentence he will have to serve under state guidelines. Mayer told him to take advantage of any addiction treatment available to him. He will be on supervised probation for five years after his time behind bars. “Remember you will be having to find a job elsewhere and start a new life elsewhere,” Mayer said. “And you need to keep sober.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Riis said.