Criminal Justice Reform Update
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:
Several years ago, I became aware of a problem with our state’s criminal justice system. South Dakota’s imprisonment rate was higher than any of our six neighboring states. Per capita, we were locking up 75 percent more men than North Dakota and four times as many women as Minnesota. Worst of all, our high imprisonment rate wasn’t making our public any safer. Our crime rate was falling, but not as fast as in other states. Continuing to follow our same path would force us to build a new women’s prison and a new men’s prison within 10 years.
To address the problem, the Chief Justice, legislative leadership and I formed a work group. We charged the work group with three goals: improve public safety, hold offenders more accountable and reduce corrections spending. The workgroup’s recommendations were incorporated into comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation that passed with bipartisan support.
To focus prison space on violent and career criminals, the reforms restructured our sentencing framework for non-violent offenders. We included new and improved probation accountability programs like drug and alcohol courts. We also made the largest investment in the history of our state into behavioral health for offenders with addictions and mental health needs.
Although it’s only been two and a half years since the Public Safety Improvement Act passed, we’re already seeing positive results. The prison population is now below initial projections. Thanks to the reforms, we will not need to build a new women’s prison this year. That alone will save us $36 million this year. By avoiding construction of new women’s and men’s prisons, and avoiding the costs of operating them, South Dakota should save over $100 million in correctional costs this decade.
I knew these reforms would be good for South Dakota’s bottom line. Happily, these reforms are also proving beneficial in other ways.
Most offenders who are released from prison continue to be supervised in the community for a period of time as parolees. Under the new law, parolees can reduce the duration of their parole by 30 days each time they complete 30 days of perfect behavior. Thus far, under this policy, over 700,000 days of parole credit have been earned. That’s almost 2,000 years-worth of parole credit earned to date. This allows parole officers to reduce the time they spend supervising those with good behavior, and focus instead on parolees who need more close supervision.
We’re not only locking fewer people up, we’re seeing a reduction in crime. According to the most recent crime reports from the FBI and the state Attorney General’s Office, South Dakota’s crime rate decreased from 2013 to 2014. Though we can’t definitively attribute the reduction in crime to the Public Safety Improvement Act, it’s certainly a positive sign to celebrate.
I know it’s still too early to declare victory. Experts tell us it will take three to five years to see all the results of our combined efforts. But based on the early data we’ve received, I am hopeful the reforms will save us more money, hold offenders more accountable and make our state a safer place.