PIERRE | A South Dakota government panel reviewed its draft annual report Thursday showing substantial progress in shifting young offenders into alternate community programs rather than sending them away into state Department of Corrections custody.
But Neil VonEschen, vice chairman of the Charles Mix County Commission, didn’t see it the same way. He serves on the state’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Council that is tracking the significant changes the Legislature made in 2015.
“The numbers aren’t the same as what I’m hearing,” VonEschen said. “I don’t believe it’s going down as fast as what these reports are telling us.”
He brought along Steven Cotton, the state’s attorney for Charles Mix County, who didn’t agree either. They said county governments and local people are bearing the brunt of the reforms that Gov. Dennis Daugaard advocated.
VonEschen asked Greg Sattizahn to meet with other commissioners in his county. Sattizahn is administrator for the state Unified Judicial System and chairs the council.
Cotton took the witness chair and told council members said he’s dealing with two youths who committed third-degree burglaries — breaking and entering an unoccupied building — on three and four occasions and weren’t placed in state corrections department custody.
Now, Cotton said, they are accused of first-degree burglary, a much more serious crime.
State law defines first-degree burglary as entering or remaining in "an occupied structure, with intent to commit any crime, unless the premises are, at the time, open to the public or the person is licensed or privileged to enter or remain.”
The law requires one of three elements: “the offender inflicts, or attempts or threatens to inflict, physical harm on another;" “the offender is armed with a dangerous weapon;" or “the offense is committed in the nighttime.”
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Cotton suggested their treatment for third-degree burglaries might have led them to think there wouldn’t be serious consequences for first-degree burglary.
A third-degree burglary is a class five felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and $10,000 in fines. A first-degree burglary is a class two felony punishable by up to 25 years imprisonment and $50,000 in fines.
Scott Myren, a council member and circuit judge who handles cases in Walworth, McPherson, Campbell and Brown counties, suggested a small group be appointed to discuss where third-degree burglary best fits.
Myren asked that other specific complaints about the new system be discussed as well. “It should be based on the data and where the data drives us,” he said.
The reforms led state government to close its last facility for youth offenders, known as STAR Academy, near Custer.
South Dakota now relies on a combination of private placements for more serious juvenile offenders and a variety of community programs for those who commit lesser offenses.
Kristi Bunkers, a director in the state Department of Corrections, said research didn’t support out-of-home placements.
Instead community-based services have been shown to be more effective, according to Bunkers. She said it isn’t logical to send someone into state custody to prevent a future crime.
“It removes an irritant from your community, but it does not solve a problem,” Bunkers said.