Juvenile justice report: More delinquent kids taken to court

Cases rise to their highest level since 2014  

By: - November 1, 2023 5:59 pm
The exterior of the Minnehaha County Juvenile Detention Center, pictured on Oct. 21, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The exterior of the Minnehaha County Juvenile Detention Center in Sioux Falls, pictured on Oct. 21, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

South Dakota prosecutors filed more juvenile delinquency petitions in fiscal year 2023 than at any time in nearly a decade, according to an annual report presented Wednesday to a state committee.

The report came during the fall meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Oversight Council, which is a group of representatives from law enforcement, schools, the Legislature, social services and the court system. The council is responsible for tracking South Dakota’s eight-year effort to reduce the number of children in custody.

The group first came together in 2015, following a set of juvenile justice reforms meant to address South Dakota’s status at the time as the state most likely to lock up children.

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The number of delinquency petitions was 3,025 in 2014. It had been below 2,800 every year since then until the recent increase, when it hit 2,822. 

Children who commit crimes are not “charged” with crimes, as adults are. Instead, prosecutors file “petitions” in the following categories: 

  • Delinquency: actions that would be crimes for adults.
  • Child in need of supervision (CHINS): actions that are concerning but not illegal, such as running away or skipping school. 
  • Delinquency/CHINS: filed against children who engage in criminal behavior after running away or skipping school.

All the figures presented in the report are based on data for state fiscal years, which begin on July 1 and end on June 30. The state is currently in fiscal year 2024.

State Court Administrator Greg Sattizahn chairs the committee, which met via Zoom. Delinquency cases fell during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sattizahn said, but that impact has dissipated.

“If you remove that COVID dip, we’re back to where we were, and even higher,” Sattizahn said

CHINS cases rose to 624 in fiscal year 2023 from the prior year’s total of 519. Unlike delinquency petitions, though, that figure represents less than half of the CHINS petitions filed in 2014.

More kids were on probation in the last fiscal year, as well, with 863 under court supervision compared to 663 in fiscal year 2022. Three-quarters of those children finished probation terms without trouble, the report says.

A chart in a draft annual report shows the number of petitions filed against juveniles in South Dakota. (Courtesy of Juvenile Justice Oversight Council)
A chart in a draft annual report shows the number of petitions filed against juveniles in South Dakota. (Courtesy of Juvenile Justice Oversight Council)

DOC: Few kids in custody 

A little over a third of children committed to Department of Corrections custody committed new offenses or otherwise violated the terms of their supervised release within three years of being placed in a DOC-contracted facility – an eight-point jump from the prior year. DOC Juvenile Services Director Kristi Bunkers cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from that figure, as the total number of kids in DOC custody is small.

There were 113 kids released in fiscal year 2023, and 38 committed new offenses. The 8% increase, she said, represents 11 kids.

“When you’re talking about small numbers, they’re pretty volatile,” Bunker said. “So it can look like a big jump, and 8% is a big jump, but we’re talking about 11 youths.”

Bunkers offered optimistic metrics, as well. She pointed to a drop in the length of stay for youth in treatment, group care or residential treatment centers in and outside of the state, noting that in 2018, kids spent an average of 17 months in state-based centers. Last year, the average was nine months.

Those numbers are volatile, as well, Bunkers said, but the steady, lower number of months in custody addresses an issue that had been pronounced prior to the 2015 juvenile justice reforms. 

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Research from places like the Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, she said, shows that longer terms in custody don’t reduce repeat offenses.

“You actually can see diminishing returns for kids, and kids end up doing worse,” Bunkers said. “They become worse off, the longer they stay.”

Bunkers, Sattizahn and presenters from the Department of Social Services were among those who pointed to diversion programs as continued success stories, with 71-92% of kids in trouble for non-violent, low level offenses successfully completing community based diversion programs to keep them out of custody, depending on their offense.

The DOC pays counties $250 for each successful diversion.

“$2,693,277.95 has been paid to counties since the inception of the fiscal incentive program for 12,727 successful diversion completers,” the report reads. 

Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, said the diversion story deserves attention at the legislative level. 

“We should be putting more money into this, because it works and we can see that it works,” Duhamel said. 

More severe crimes on the rise

The jump in delinquency could be tied in part to an increase in population, but Minnehaha County Deputy State’s Attorney Carole James said the numbers aren’t the most concerning issue.

“We may be having more filings because the population is increasing, but that doesn’t necessarily explain the types of crimes we’re seeing,” James said. 

There are drug- and gun-related crimes, stolen vehicles, burglaries and violence coming across her desk as a juvenile prosecutor. She returned to juvenile cases in February of 2022 after a stint working adult cases, and she said the number of gun crimes stood in stark contrast to her pre-2019 work in juvenile justice.

There are a wealth of diversion programs that work for a huge number of kids, James said – Minnehaha County successfully diverted 354 kids last year – but the violence is troublesome.

“Now it seems to be just as easy to get a gun as it used to be to get a joint,” James said.

Concerns about unruly kids, particularly from school district officials, animated some changes at the legislative level this year, including a “three strikes” law that can put kids in DOC custody for three offenses in six months, regardless of the seriousness of the offense.

Now it seems to be just as easy to get a gun as it used to be to get a joint.

– Minnehaha County Deputy State’s Attorney Carole James

School officials and others testified that the 2015 reforms swung the pendulum too far toward diversion, putting too many disruptive kids back in classrooms. 

James has used the “three strikes” option “once or twice,” but she said DOC custody is not always the best fit. The DOC contracts with treatment centers and group homes, but now lacks the kind of secure detention facility it once had at Star Academy in Custer before the state closed it.

James said more mental health treatment options are “always welcome,” but group homes and treatment facilities aren’t always enough for kids with the most violent tendencies. 

Some kids aren’t welcome at any of them.

“We’ve come to the point where some kids have literally exhausted all the options that the system has for them,” James said.

In Pennington County, delinquency petitions are trending downward compared to last year at this time, said Pennington County State’s Attorney spokeswoman Katy Urban, but the West River county has seen many of the same spikes in violence and thefts.

“We have seen an uptick in assaults, and there seem to be more crimes of opportunity; a kid walking down the street happens to see keys hanging from the ignition or something they want in a car, and so they take,” Urban said.

Prosecutors in Rapid City would also like to see more treatment options. The list of options are particularly short for kids with more severe offenses, who might not be welcome in the facilities that are available.

“Of course, fewer resources mean these kids are not getting the help they need, resulting in some reoffending,” Urban said. 



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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.