PIERRE | Retired circuit judge Tim Bjorkman, a Democratic candidate for South Dakota’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, recently submitted a 55-page article to South Dakota Law Review.
In it he laid out his explanation and recommendations for the state prison system and SB 70, known as the Public Safety Improvement Act. The Legislature enacted SB 70 in 2013 as recommended by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Chief Justice David Gilbertson.
It’s impossible to condense his article into 500 words for this column. Highlights are possible.
The surface problem Bjorkman addresses is that state prisons now hold seven and one-half times more people than 40 years ago.
If those ranks had grown at the same pace as South Dakota’s population, prisons would house about 650 men and women, instead of nearly 4,000, he wrote.
“Almost 90 percent of those sent there are substance abusers who are there for short stays: for over a decade our state has admitted into prison and released back into the community about 3,000 individuals annually, a turnover rate of about 88 percent,” he says.
“Even in the wake of SB 70, 80 percent of men and women admitted to prison in South Dakota annually are sent there for a non-violent crime.”
He later notes the annual cost of more than $21,000 for a prison inmate in South Dakota could pay for supervising 18 people on probation.
He adds: “SB 70 contains a number of well-intentioned and well-crafted, evidence-based reforms. Many of these measures, although still in their developmental stages, hold promise for reforming offenders’ lives.”
But the reform falls short, in his view, in “at least two crucial ways.” He says enhanced supervision and treatment hasn’t happened. And he says reforms don’t reach what he describes as “the profound, lifelong damage inflicted upon the children who grow up in dysfunctional families.”
Starting at about the fortieth page, Bjorkman specifically suggests:
- Increase the supervision of services available to probationers;
- Provide addition treatment appropriate to the probationer’s needs;
- Adequately fund the state’s community mental health system;
- Expand eligibility for specialty courts;
- Develop a state program for young, nonviolent felons;
- Reconsider the use of bond schedules and imposition of monetary sanctions as a probation condition; and
- Promote community sanctions by providing counties meaningful financial assistance.
He also urges other steps state government could take:
- Strengthening the ability of the Department of Social Services to protect children against abuse and neglect;
- Providing at-risk parents assistance;
- Ensure early childhood education for at-risk children;
- Promote a learning environment for all students appropriate to their needs;
- Combat truancy;
- Mobilize private assistance;
- Provide access to mental health and addiction treatment;
- Maintain access to affordable birth control for parents of at-risk children; and
- Understanding the critical importance of at least one responsible adult influence in a child’s life.
He concludes by saying “a fair opportunity for a decent life” must be ensured to everyone.