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Report: Probation Reform Preserves Safety, Saves Money

Kealey Bultena

A new study shows judicial reforms saved South Dakota $34 million in the first two years. Sweeping changes in mid-2013 included presumptive probation. That means judges sentencing people for low-level felonies keep offenders in communities instead of sending them to prison. Researchers from the Justice Policy Center say initial results are promising, but the work isn’t finished.

A new report indicates changes that keep more offenders out of prison are helping state coffers without risking public safety.

Sam Bieler is a research associate with the Urban Institute. He says reported numbers reveal that the reforms allow judges to focus their most costly tool – prison – only on people who risk public safety.

"When the person they’re seeing has a longer criminal history, has more serious cases of offending, they are sending that person to jail, but more and more they are using probation," Bieler says. "They’re getting people supervised in the community, which is less costly, often more likely to reduce recidivism. They’re doing that more often – up to about 80 percent in the year that we’re seeing out in the two years after implementation."

Bieler says South Dakota put fewer offenders in prison during the first two years of the reform, but he says incarceration rates ticked up in the second half of 2015. Bieler says that’s an early indicator leaders can do more.

The researcher says public safety is a critical factor when using probation instead of prison time. Bieler says findings show low-level felons kept in their South Dakota communities are generally not more likely to re-offend.

"If you exclude drug ingestion and drug possession, you’ll see that there’s really no change in recidivism one year out, and that to us indicates that this new change is not really impacting public safety in a bad way in South Dakota," Bieler says.

Bieler says state leaders can build on sentencing reforms by re-classifying certain drug possession and ingestion crimes.

"We can’t take credit for thinking of this; this was actually one of the reforms that was initially suggested by the working group South Dakota created to inform its very first round of bipartisan policy recommendations," Bieler says. "What we suggest is basically making many of the ingestion statutes that currently exist misdemeanors rather than felonies."

Bieler says this move could help South Dakota further limit the number of people in prison for drug addiction and abuse.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley says he supports judicial reform.

"However, any attempt to decriminalize or turn serious felony drug possession or ingestion into a low level misdemeanor would unnecessarily place the public’s health and safety at risk," Jackley says. "The public would be better served by strengthening our prevention, enforcement and treatment efforts including focusing on a strong anti-meth and heroin campaign."

The Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center’s report lists additional recommendations including investing in community-based treatment programs. The entire report is available at this link.

Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).
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