Over the past decade, South Dakota saw a significant increase in the number of juveniles arrested for drug crimes, and officials see few signs that the arrests will fall anytime soon despite recent reforms of the state juvenile justice system.

According to state crime data, the number of youths arrested on drug charges such as possession, use and distribution nearly doubled from 579 in 2008 to 1,043 in 2012. Since 2012, the number of juvenile arrests for drug crimes hasn’t fallen below 948. The number peaked at 1,062 in 2015, the same year a set of sweeping new juvenile justice reforms went into effect.

State officials are uncertain whether the upward trend in arrests means that more young people are actually using drugs, if more are being caught due to increased enforcement, or whether the juvenile justice system reforms of 2015 that sought to keep juveniles out of jail has inadvertently led to a higher re-offense rate by some juvenile drug users. The number of juveniles arrested for all other crimes not related to drugs has fallen across the state in recent years.

The rise in juvenile drug arrests comes as the state is already grappling with increased arrest rates of adults on drug charges. The number of adults arrested for drug crimes in South Dakota climbed from 2,778 in 2008 to 9,080 in 2018, an increase of nearly 227%.

Law enforcement and judicial officials have in the past blamed much of the rise in adult arrests on the methamphetamine epidemic and also the proliferation of opioid addiction in South Dakota. While the reasons for the climbing juvenile drug arrests are less clear, the arrest numbers for juveniles and adults are causing concern among state officials that the drug problem in South Dakota needs constant focus.

“Drug crime is something that’s growing in South Dakota, and it’s something we need to pay attention to,” said Tim Bormann, chief of staff to South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

The high juvenile drug arrest rate gave the state some unflattering national attention earlier this year. In March, 2019, a study conducted by the Greenhouse Treatment Facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, showed that South Dakota had the highest juvenile drug arrest rate in the nation in 2017. According to the study, 1,056 juvenile drug arrests were made that year, a rate of more than 45 juveniles per 10,000 South Dakotans under the age of 18. The Greenhouse study was based on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report.

By comparison, Wyoming, the state with the second-highest rate of juvenile drug arrests in the study, had 579 such arrests and a rate of about 35 drug arrests per 10,000 juveniles. North Dakota was third in the ranking, with 479 juvenile drug arrests for about 17 arrests per 10,000 juveniles in 2017.

Minnesota, population 5.6 million, reported 1,893 total juvenile drug arrests in 2017 for a rate of about 14 arrests per 10,000 youths. Montana, Iowa and Nebraska all reported fewer juvenile drug arrests than South Dakota and much lower arrest rates.

South Dakota officials, however, say the rate in the Greenhouse study doesn’t tell the whole story.

Greg Sattizahn, chairman of the South Dakota Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which monitors the state’s juvenile justice reform efforts, said the Uniform Crime Report isn’t supposed to be used to rank states. Sattizahn said there are too many factors unaccounted for in the data, including that not every jurisdiction in every state reports their statistics to the FBI.

Greg Sattizahn, chair of the South Dakota Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, provides an overview of what the oversight committee has focused on over the past four years and gives a quick look at the committee’s plans for the future. At least some of the increase in juvenile drug arrests might be related to what’s going on with adults, who are being arrested on drug crimes at an alarming rate in South Dakota. “It sure makes sense to me that if you have more drug use at home, you’ll have more kids exposed to it,” said Greg Sattizahn.

In 2018, 17 South Dakota jurisdictions failed to report a full year’s worth of data, said Bormann.

Despite concerns over the rankings, state data shows that the number of juveniles arrested for drug offenses has increased dramatically since 2008 and has remained at an elevated level since.

Prior to 2015, South Dakota had one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the country. The statistics was one driving force behind efforts by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard to sign what was known as the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act in March of that year.

The law created or boosted funding for a suite of new services and diversion programs designed to fight addiction and alter behavior instead of locking juveniles up, Sattizahn said. The goal behind many of the reforms is to keep youths out of the justice system altogether, he said.

“If we have too heavy a hand … you can push them further into the criminal justice system,” Sattizahn said.

So far, the reform effort has had some success. The number of youths placed into the custody of the Department of Corrections for the first time fell by 63 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee 2018 annual report.

In another sign of success, the number of youths arrested for crimes not related to drugs has declined. In 2012, the state reported 6,617 arrests of juveniles for all crimes other than drug use, possession or distribution. In 2018, South Dakota reported 5,026 non-drug juvenile arrests, a 24 percent decline over that period.

The state’s law enforcement community is pegging the rise in juvenile drug arrests at least partially on the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, Bormann said. The argument is that because youths who were arrested used to be placed in treatment or a detention center, but are now released into the community, that they have more opportunities to reoffend.

“One of the things you will hear from prosecutors and law enforcement is, it tends to create a lot of repeat offenders,” Bormann said.

Local law enforcement agencies, however, aren’t required to report how many times they arrest the same person for the same crime. As a result, there isn’t a good way for state officials to track the number of repeat arrests.

(Ed. Note — Part II of this story will run in Friday’s Capital Journal)

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