The South Dakota House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol in Pierre. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
The recently concluded legislative session emphasized and funded criminal justice to an extent not seen in a decade, but according to some prosecutors and lawmakers, it’s just the start of reforms.
The focus next year, they say, should be on rehabilitation.
“We’ve had legislators who have reached out and have already said, ‘Hey, what can we start working on for next year?’” said Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar.
Lawmakers convened for their annual session in January and finished Thursday, except for a day set aside on March 27 to consider vetoed bills. Not since former Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s reform efforts in 2013 had the Legislature focused so closely on criminal justice.
Among other updates to public safety laws, such as enhancing the penalty for attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, legislators passed:
- A bill to upend the state’s parole system for 23 violent offenses under the banner of “truth in sentencing,” potentially costing the state millions in incarceration expenses,
- Another potentially costly proposal to set mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of four or more driving under the influence violations, and,
- Two bills that allocate around $400 million for a new women’s prison in Rapid City and a replacement facility for the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
Lawmakers ponder rehab programs
Haggar helped draft the truth in sentencing bill, which was sponsored by Sioux Falls Republicans Brent Hoffman in the Senate and Sue Peterson in the House.
During a press conference to discuss 2022 crime statistics in Sioux Falls last week, Haggar called the bill “a good first step.” The next step will be to bolster rehabilitation programs behind the prison walls, particularly for nonviolent offenders.
Haggar is hopeful that will happen next year, because legislators are already asking about it.
“That’s a golden opportunity for us,” Haggar said. “ And hopefully, we’re going to be able to make some real impact on rehabilitation as well.”
Hoffman would like to improve rehabilitation and community transition in upcoming legislative sessions, as well. The new prisons will help, he said, since the current outdated or overcrowded facilities make it difficult for the Department of Corrections to offer coursework for inmates.
The women’s prison in Pierre is so full that space for drug treatment is severely limited. The additional women’s prison in eastern Rapid City, set to begin construction soon and open in 2024, will free up space to resume rehabilitation coursework. The men’s facility, meanwhile, at an as-yet undetermined location in or near Sioux Falls, will ease crowding for some men’s facilities and offer flexibility for programming and placement.
The penitentiary was designed for an era when inmates were expected to sit in cells for 22 hours a day.
“We’re largely limited within the Sioux Falls men’s penitentiary by simple logistics, building structure, and a multi-story building that doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of things,” Hoffman said. “There simply isn’t space.”
Hoffman would also like to make it easier for paroled inmates to return to their home areas. Inmates often stay in Sioux Falls after release for its wealth of employment opportunities and broad range of social service programs. The Banquet offers free daily meals, there are several temporary work agencies that hire felons, and the city has halfway houses like the Glory House or the Arch to help them step slowly back into society from supervision.
Hoffman said legislation to encourage the expansion of services to more rural areas or partnerships to expand existing programs could aid in community transition and prevent Sioux Falls from being the default choice for post-incarceration parole planning.
With the right programming and supervision in place, Hoffman said, the state could reach a place for parolees where “you aren’t just released in Sioux Falls, you are transported and transitioned and assisted with relocating back to your home on record.”
Specialty courts encouraged with DUI penalties
Rehabilitation will be top of mind for Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, too. Karr, whose grandmother was struck by and killed by a drunken driver with multiple convictions in 2019, spearheaded mandatory minimums for DUIs this session.
It was the second year he moved to stiffen the penalties for repeat offenders, but this time he was convinced to adjust the verbiage to encourage the use of DUI courts prior to a sentence. He also added provisions for post-conviction supervision.
Karr told South Dakota Searchlight he shifted his thinking after discussions with representatives from the Unified Judicial System. DUI courts defer felony DUI sentences in exchange for intensive monitoring and weekly court sessions that last at least 18 months. The sessions play out like support group meetings, where positive peer pressure from other participants is coupled with incentives and encouragement from a judge.
Those courts have an 80% success rate in terms of reducing recidivism, Karr learned. Evidence-based programs that can improve public safety for less money – probation and parole are significantly less costly than incarceration – often make more sense for taxpayers, Karr said.
“The work is not done,” Karr said. “At the end of the day, we want to address serial offenders. If we can do that through rehabilitation … that’s what we want.”
Nonviolent crime rate dropping
Expansion of specialty courts for DUIs, drug users, veterans and people with mental illness was a pillar of Daugaard’s 2013 criminal justice reform package. Other rehab and diversion programs meant to keep offenders out of jail or prison if they do not pose serious risk to the public were bolstered in some jurisdictions by grant funding from groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.
Arrest rates for non-violent crimes over the past five years would suggest those efforts have paid off.
Drunken driving arrests in Rapid City for the past three years have held steady at lower than the 10-year average, with the second-lowest arrest total for that time frame logged in 2022. DUI trends have been similar in Sioux Falls, and methamphetamine arrests continued a downward trend in both cities for 2022. Fentanyl arrests have increased in recent years, but the arrest numbers for that drug remain lower than arrests for meth.
Drug arrests statewide have trended downward for at least five years, according to the latest report from the Division of Criminal Investigation.
Diversion programs, pre-trial monitoring through the 24/7 sobriety program, and facilities for mental health holds are now so plentiful in Sioux Falls that Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead hasn’t sent a jail inmate out into the community to pick up trash or otherwise perform community service for five years.
Low-risk inmates, sometimes called “trusties,” had performed such tasks in Sioux Falls for decades. At this point, Milstead said, the inmates who may have been trusties a decade ago are already on supervision in the community.
Per capita violent crime in Sioux Falls has ticked up since the pandemic. But non-violent crime – and even some violent crimes like rape – dropped in 2022.
That’s a point that stuck with House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre. Mortenson was among the handful of House members who argued against the truth in sentencing bill.
On the House floor, he pointed to the latest DCI report as proof that the bill was unnecessary.
Arrests for burglary, rape and other crimes are down, not up.
“There are a lot of parts of our country that appear to be getting less safe, particularly in urban areas,” Mortenson said last week. “That really does not appear to be true in most of South Dakota, thankfully. We remain a very safe state.”
The Hoffman bill had the support of sheriffs and prosecutors statewide, which made it difficult for lawmakers to side with him on the issue, Mortenson said late last week.
He’s concerned about the potential cost of this year’s public safety bills, but said he’s hopeful his fellow legislators will return next year ready to consider approaches beyond lock and key.
“It’s easy to say, ‘We’re mad at people for breaking the law, so let’s put them in prison forever. That’ll make sure they don’t commit these crimes any more,’” Mortenson said. “That’s the easy way. It just isn’t the effective way if what you’re looking for is public safety.”
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