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Senate Judiciary hears justice reforms fail

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In 2013, Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a comprehensive package of laws intending to find community alternatives to sending offenders to jail and prison. This year’s legislature is hearing, not for the first time, that the 2013 approach has failed. The Senate Judiciary committee heard testimony on Thursday, Jan. 29, from the Madison Chief of Police.

Every session, the South Dakota Legislature deals in some way with the costly problems of crime, addiction, and mental illness.

Senate Bill 70, passed by the 2013 legislature, attempted to find solutions by putting low-level felony offenders on probation, rather than sending them to prison, and using community services to treat mental illness and addiction.

Madison Chief of Police Justin Meyer says that has not worked.

“We deal with 5 percent of the public 95 percent of the time,” he said.

Meyer told the Senate Judiciary that the 2013 bill provided for increased addiction and mental health treatment, but that did not happen. And he said probation and parole officers have unmanageable caseloads. As a result, communities are not able to provide the level of treatment and supervision required to make the reforms work.

“We’ve seen that we’re in a revolving door here,” Meyer said. “The same people that are coming in initially, they’re going back out, and there’s nothing that’s being done to change their behavior.”

He said low-level offenders commit crimes, go to jail for a few days, and are released back into the community: “We’re putting them right back into the environment that caused them to offend the first time.”

Meyer said the same situation exists with juveniles—the same kids are revolving through, and eventually, they turn 18 and have the same experience as adults.

He told the committee that intervention needs to occur at a much earlier age.

This year’s legislature is considering some of these issues in bills coming out of two summer studies. One highlighted the need for more jail and prison cells. Another studied juvenile truancy and crime, with one conclusion calling for early childhood interventions.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.
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