In January of 2012, I introduced in my State of the State Address a proposal to comprehensively reform our criminal justice system.
The Public Safety Improvement Act legislation was pieced together with help from the Chief Justice, legislative leaders and stakeholders from across the state. The bill passed with overwhelming support.
Aimed at addressing prison overcrowding and improving public safety, the proposal restructured our sentencing framework for non-violent offenders. It included new and improved probation accountability programs like drug and alcohol courts, making it the largest investment in the history of our state for correctional behavioral health.
Four-and-a-half years later, we are seeing positive developments.
Among the successes is probation. Under the new law, felony probationers can reduce the duration of their probation by 30 days each time they complete 30 days of perfect behavior. Last fiscal year, offenders reduced their time on probation by 809,250 days. That’s more than 2,000 years-worth of probation credit. Probationers who do well early in their probation term are very unlikely to violate later in their term, so this reform allows probation officers to focus on supervising those who need it. Even though probation numbers are higher than what they were in 2012, a very small number of individuals on presumptive probation – less than one percent – committed a violent crime and were sent to prison.
A similar arrangement for earned parole time was established under the law. Parolees last year earned hundreds of thousands of days in parole credit. Since passage of the Public Safety Improvement Act, more parolees are being successfully monitored within their communities.
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A total of 540 individuals have completed substance abuse treatment created by the Act. In fact, our treatment completion rate is 11 percent higher than the national average. Because of the reforms, more offenders are receiving the help they need through drug and DUI courts. More mothers and fathers are able to stay in their communities and provide for their children.
These are tremendous accomplishments, and I am proud of our work. Still, there are areas where we would like to see more improvement. The total prison population is lower than it would have been without the reforms, but it is higher than our projections had predicted. We need to understand why this is happening and determine if it can be addressed.
One particular area of concern is the regional increase in meth trafficking, which South Dakota and neighboring states have experienced over the past seven or eight years. Like our neighbors, South Dakota is seeing more meth-related arrests and convictions. While the Public Safety Improvement Act was not designed to address drug trafficking, we need to consider whether our practices need to adapt to address the growing number of drug-related incarcerations.
I have invited a group of stakeholders to work on these issues. They represent law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys, corrections, and the court system. These stakeholders are in the process of reviewing the data and they will make recommendations to me on how to further improve our criminal justice system. With their help, I am confident we will find solutions to make South Dakota a safer place.
Just as we all tend to overlook our own shortcomings, some politicians tend to defend their programs at all costs. I have tried to do the opposite.
I define success by studying the data and facts, not anecdotes and feelings, and I’m always willing to consider new information. The Public Safety Improvement Act has achieved much success, but it could be better. As always, we are working to do what we can to achieve a complete success.