Last year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard proposed reforming education in his State of the State address to the South Dakota Legislature only to see his reforms -- heavily modified by the Legislature -- rejected by voters in November.
This year, Daugaard is focusing on reforming the state's criminal justice system. He asked lawmakers to approve a legislative package that would emphasize probation and drug and alcohol treatment for nonviolent offenders as an alternative to lengthy prison sentences.
“This set of proposals is not about being soft on crime, it’s about being smart on crime,” Daugaard said.
The governor pointed to statistics that show South Dakota by far has more prison inmates than surrounding states without a corresponding reduction in crime rates. “Our public safety is no better than states with lower imprisonment rates,” Daugaard said.
The governor said there were 550 inmates in 1977 and there are about 3,600 prison inmates today. If the state's prison population were to grow at its current rate, there would be an additional 900 inmates in 10 years that would require the construction of two new prisons and cost up to $224 million. Daugaard said the state needs a different approach.
To find a different approach, Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders from both parties convened a study panel last year that recommended changes to the criminal justice system. Following his speech, Daugaard joined Gilbertson and other lawmakers in introducing the Public Safety Improvement Act.
We have favorably commented on the study commission's proposal to expand specialty courts that focus on drunken driving and drug offenses. Under the governor's plan, Pennington County would receive a DUI court, while the Northern Hills drug court in Sturgis would be expanded to cover more of the Black Hills area.
The drug and alcohol courts aim at alternatives to prison sentences that include treatment and intensive monitoring of offenders to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Most of the state's prison population have problems with drug and alcohol addictions.
On Wednesday, Gilbertson told lawmakers in his State of the Judiciary address that drug and alcohol courts have an 81 percent success rate at breaking the cycle of addiction for repeat felons.
The governor's reform package includes the creation of a 24/7 sobriety program for drug users that is similar to the successful 24/7 program for DUI offenses, a presumption of probation sentences for low-level felons and increased monitoring of those who earn early release through parole and probation.
The bill also would lower the penalties for possession of controlled substances, including heroin and methamphetamine, reversing the trend in past years of increasing penalties as a deterrent. Daugaard told lawmakers that "prison is not an effective place to treat those with drug, alcohol and mental health issues."
The governor said he was prepared to provide additional funding to counties to pay for the additional probation costs.
Unlike his education reforms that failed to gather significant public support last year, especially from educators, Daugaard's proposed criminal justice system measures already have bipartisan support in the Legislature and those working in the criminal justice system. The public also can be won over if the reforms are shown to lower crime rates while saving the state money.
There has to be a better way than locking offenders behind bars and dumping them back on the streets when their sentences are up.
The governor's justice reform ideas appear to be a sensible path to ending the cycle of repeat criminal behavior.