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Senate bills address juvenile justice reforms

Wade Pogony and Terra Larson, left, testified on SB 4, and Rep. Rebecca Reimer and Rep. Mike Stevens, right, testified on SB 6. Background: Bon Homme County Courthouse, part of the First Judicial District.

The House Judiciary Committee heard two Senate bills on Friday, Feb. 24, that arose from a summer interim study designed to improve juvenile justice in South Dakota.

First up was Senate Bill 4, to allow circuit judges to consider sending juvenile offenders to the Department of Corrections for a third strike, even for nonviolent crimes.

An amendment in the Senate had changed that number to a second strike, but the House committee undid that change before proceeding.

The bill responds to the reality that some areas of South Dakota don’t have the community services required to treat troubled children.

Juvenile justice reforms in 2015 depended largely on community-based services rather than DOC placement for nonviolent juvenile offenders.

But over the years it became apparent that rural communities don’t have adequate services such as counseling and treatment for substance abuse.

Wade Pogany is executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. He testified in support of sending repeat offenders to DOC care.

“They get arrested, they get to the courts, they’re back again,” he said. “But where they’re going is, they’re going from the courts and jail back to the school.”

Pogany confirmed prior testimony of other educators.

“We can’t provide those services in the school to help them,” Pogany said. “I think it’s better off in corrections. They have especially some of the therapy that these kids need.”

Some witnesses objected that a DOC placement is too harsh.

Terra Larson lobbies for the South Dakota Defense Lawyers Association. She said some of the kids who get into trouble might be stealing food because they’re hungry or committing crimes to alleviate other conditions in the home.

“This alternative placement that they’re talking about and additional services that the proponents are talking about is jail,” she said. “It’s DOC custody.”

Larson said troubled kids need someone to explore whether the behavior stems from family issues.

Rep. Tim Reisch responded that a DOC placement doesn’t necessarily mean the juvenile is going to sit in detention.

“There’s still a wide range of options, and they do a comprehensive evaluation on every one of those kids to see what’s the right thing for the kid,” Reisch said.

The committee approved SB 4 on a vote of 11 to 2.

The committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 6, which establishes a community response team for kids who get into trouble.

Community teams are central to the reforms in juvenile justice implemented in 2015. But not all communities offer the services.

One reason is that services are not available. But another reason is that judges have not been given the option in law to appoint teams, and so they’ve hesitated. SB 6 gives judges that authority.

Rep. Mike Stevens’ district includes Clay and Yankton counties, two of the 14 counties included in the First Judicial Circuit.

Stevens said First Circuit judges currently appoint community teams to look into a juvenile offender’s situation and give the judge options before adjudication.

“We found out that if our teams can be used earlier in the process, teams are more likely to find better alternatives, pathways, and services that lead to better outcomes for our children,” he said.

Stevens said the child’s school is central to the team approach.

“Our teachers and our administrators, they have almost daily contact with these kids, and they probably have a better idea what’s going on and know what’s going on than anyone else does,” he said.

Stevens noted that the child’s parents are included by law.

Rep. Rebecca Reimer’s district includes Brule and Buffalo counties, also part of the First Circuit.

She expressed concern about the central role played by school personnel.

“I just wonder how much extra work it is for the person that is asked to be a part of this team,” she said.

Reimer asked if there should be an appropriation to compensate school employees for their additional time.

“We do ask a lot of our teachers,” she noted. “They do a lot of outside work.”

Stevens replied that he doesn’t speak for all teachers, but his wife taught for 42 years and believes that doing what’s right is what’s best for children.

“The amount of time that they would spend to turn a child around saves them so much time later in the classroom,” Stevens said.

The committee voted 13-0 to approve the SB 6.

Both bills now go to the House floor for debate.

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