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Dennis Kaemingk is a law and order kind of guy.

He spent a career in law enforcement, first at the Mitchell Police Department rising to the rank of captain of detectives, and finishing as the Secretary of Corrections under Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

As state lawmakers consider changes in laws controlling illegal drugs to address burgeoning prison and jail populations, I wanted Kaemingk’s take on what should be done.

Information by the state Legislative Research Council indicates that if the penalty for ingestion of a controlled substance was changed from a felony to a misdemeanor, the state would save $50 million over 10 years.

But is softening the penalty for drug infractions the wise response? What follows is my interview with Kaemingk, edited for length.

Q: Give us some background on the state’s drug laws and where we are today.

A: I think that the ingestion law and how it is being used puts us in the situation we are in. We are creating felons like no other state when it comes to drugs and the place where they end up is in prison or jail. When you take a low risk offender and incarcerate them, we risk making them worse, rather than better. They start associating with other felons and are less likely to be in a pro-social environment. We are the only state in the U.S. where ingestion is a felony, first time. We are doing a detrimental service to these individuals, their families and taxpayers who foot the bill.

Q: South Dakota has a higher percentage of incarcerations for drugs than other states. Why is this?

A: We have a lot of drugs in South Dakota, but so do other states. They do not have the incarceration issues that we have. It seems like South Dakota is on steroids because ingestion is a felony.

Q: Should possession of marijuana be decriminalized?

A: I don’t know where that would get you. I don’t favor decriminalization of drugs. There needs to be social norms, what is right and what is wrong. We just need to respond differently, a more robust understanding of what we can do outside of jail or prison.

Q: What are the underlying causes of drug abuse and how can they be addressed?

A: It is a society, family and mental health issue. All contribute to the problem. I don’t believe that we are ignoring these issues, we just don’t see another easy solution. Our default is incarceration. We need to apply more resources in identifying mental health problems at the onset and promote early interventions. The breakdown of the family and norms we’ve been used to — we are seeing this throughout our society and need to get a handle on it.

Q: What kind of programs would be needed to replace incarceration?

A: Diversions, incentives and interventions at the time of arrest. Diversion into some other program has to be focused. It lies at the beginning of the system and not at the end. Once they are sent to prison or jail, it’s a whole different ballgame. But I think diversion right away, figuring out where they are, what their needs are, I think that’s where the benefits are. We should explore what other states are doing.

Kaemingk added this:

Illegal drug use is generational. It has been generational for a long time in South Dakota. The present practice of incarceration has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We continue to think punishment works for an addiction; it does not.

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Noel Hamiel is a retired newspaperman and former state legislator. He also writes a column for weekly newspapers at noelhamiel.com. He can be reached at noelhamiel@gmail.com.

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