State Court Administrator Greg Sattizahn addresses the Study Committee on Juvenile Justice on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A legislative panel wants to make it easier for judges to detain juveniles, require school resource officers to report suspected drug use to school officials, fund community response teams to deal with low-level offenders and offer a new path to graduation for troubled youth.
Those were among the proposals that emerged during the final meeting of the Study Committee on Juvenile Justice on Thursday. The group also endorsed broader use of telemedicine for mental health and voiced support for scholarship and loan forgiveness plans for students entering mental health fields.
The group of House and Senate lawmakers met four times from June through early November. Its goal was to address the repeat juvenile offenses that law enforcement and school officials say stem in part from a 2015 juvenile justice reform law that expanded the use of alternatives to detention.
The eight bill proposals and six resolutions folded into the group’s final report were built with input gathered from the Unified Judicial System (UJS), law enforcement, mental health providers, parents, Department of Corrections (DOC) officials and others.
School officials testified, for example, of concerns over students who commit multiple offenses or repeatedly violate probation terms returning to classrooms. The 2015 reforms, it was argued, make it too difficult to detain a child.
In response, the lawmakers drafted a bill that would allow judges to commit a child to the DOC following three delinquent or criminal acts after an initial criminal incident.
The measure wouldn’t affect many young people, according to Greg Sattizahn, state court administrator for the UJS. Sattizahn spoke in favor of the proposal, but told the committee that just 36 kids over the past year hit the “three strikes” mark.
“That number leads me to believe that this is a fairly small group,” Sattizahn said.
Kristi Bunkers of the DOC opposed the expansion of judicial discretion, however. Alternatives already exist, she said, and that secure lockup tends to do more harm than good for nonviolent offenders.
“I think we need to use restraint, and I don’t think this three-strikes proposal serves the best interest of the child,” Bunkers said. “I don’t agree with widening the net for commitment to state custody.”
Most judges expect a commitment to DOC custody to translate to detention and removal from a community, she said. The DOC has the discretion to use less restrictive options, but Bunkers said that judges already can and do use those options before turning to the DOC.
“From our perspective, (the 2015 law) works. We’re receiving youth who are higher risk,” Bunkers said.
The proposal also didn’t sit right with Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton. The defense attorney worries that judges in smaller communities without access to treatment programs and diversion programs could default to detention, regardless of how severe a youth offense might be.
“If you’re in a rural community, they’ll want to send you to DOC,” said Stevens.
But offering judges an option for repeat offenders is a key outcome, according to Sen. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford. Without that change, the legislature might make more drastic changes to address worries over safety in the classroom.
“This committee is in existence to a great extent because there’s been a movement by some legislators to throw out (the 2015 reform package) in its entirety,” Steinhauer said.
Committee Chair Rep. Caleb Finck, R-Tripp, noted that lawmakers will be able to adjust the language on the three strikes proposal during the session.
“They’ve got these kids they’re playing catch and release with. We have got to have something in place to make sure that can only go on so long,” said Finck. “I think it needs some work, but I think there are some folks around us who are willing to put in the work.”
The group also endorsed a measure that, if passed in 2023, would require school resource officers to report suspected drug or alcohol use or intentions to commit a violent act to school officials.
That proposal landed in the group’s final report without the support of Sen. David Wheeler, R-Huron, who cautioned that it could set an unrealistic bar for reporting misbehavior. Current law says that officers “may” report their suspicions to school officials, and several committee members mentioned that most school districts already communicate well with law enforcement.
“I can’t get behind the idea that every class 2 misdemeanor minor consumption ticket should go to the school, even in the summer,” Wheeler said.
The group also discussed the shortage of mental health professionals throughout its meetings. The vast majority of children who come in contact with the juvenile justice system, they learned, struggle with mental illness and the trauma of adverse childhood experiences such as alcoholism or abuse in the home, divorce or incarcerated parents.
Wait times for space in mental health or drug treatment programs can be extensive, however. There aren’t enough counselors to keep up with the wide range of needs in school children, which is why they endorsed increased access to telemedicine and proposals that would incentivize students to go into the mental health fields.
“This is one small piece, but it’s a vital piece, because we can’t fix these other problems if we don’t have the workforce,” said Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls.
The lawmakers will need to bring each proposal forward during the next legislative session before any changes can be made.
Access the group’s full list of recommendations at this link.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.