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Juvenile Justice requires behavioral healthcare

This summer a legislative study on Juvenile Justice has focused heavily on keeping kids in school to prevent them from turning to crime. The committee has also focused on mental health problems and the severe dearth of treatment in South Dakota.

At the committee’s meeting on Thursday, Oct. 20, at the State Capitol, one legislator spoke at length on the need for a definitive state response.

Senator V.J. Smith of Brookings lists his occupation as an author and professional speaker. At the most recent interim committee meeting on juvenile justice, he put those skills to work.

“You know, I want to remind you why we have government. Government, if you look at the simple statement, is to promote the health, safety and welfare of the citizens. That’s what we do,” he said. “You take that middle word, safety. We do a fantastic job of safety. Every time law enforcement wants something in this state, they get it. It’s one of the protected classes in the legislature.”

By comparison, Smith said elected officials resist increasing spending on behavioral health, even though they recognize the role of mental illness and addiction in societal dysfunctions like crime and suicide.

Other committee members noted that there’s an extreme shortage of mental health professionals in the state that reflects the shortage of workers across the board. They said it is not a problem that can be legislated away, but it could be “appropriated away” if the state spent money to encourage people to choose a career in behavioral health and to work in South Dakota.

Smith echoed that sentiment.

“We have to recognize—and I’m going to say something blasphemous in this Capitol—if it requires extra positions in state government or paying for people in schools to take better care of our kids, then we ought to do it. Period.”

But Smith said the voters will likely take the decision away from the legislature after November’s election.

“Now next month, we’re going to hear loud and clear from the citizens of South Dakota on the Medicaid expansion, and it’s going to go through overwhelming, because the citizens of the state recognize that health is critical,” he said. “But a component on that health is mental health.”

The interim committee will meet again to solidify the recommendations it will make to the legislature for its upcoming 2023 session.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.