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Metht bust

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Marty Jackley has pulled a familiar card from the lawman’s deck — when there is a problem, lock ‘em up and if that doesn’t work, lock ‘em up longer.

On the eve of the 2018 legislative session, Jackley announced he would introduce legislation that would significantly extend prison sentences for selling meth — up to 50 years in certain cases. The idea, he said, is to send the message that South Dakota is “off limits” to meth dealers.

No one will disagree that meth is a problem and dealers who are repeat offenders or those who manufacture the drug should serve long prison terms, which the state already has in place. It is short-sighted and costly, however, to put every convicted dealer in prison for 15 to 50 years even if Jackley believes it will reduce the prison population in the long run — although that seems questionable if sentences are extended for those involved with a highly addictive drug. In addition, meth dealers who go to prison will be replaced as long as there is a demand for the drug.

Little evidence exists that long — much less longer — prison sentences deter crime. At this moment, South Dakota has plenty of convicts serving 100 year prison terms and longer. In fact, Gov. Daugaard spearheaded legislation in 2012 to reduce the prison population due to concerns about overcrowding.

The Public Safety Improvement Act was the result of work done by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice, lawmakers and stakeholders. It developed alternatives for non-violent offenders, who in many cases were imprisoned on drug charges. Yet despite those efforts, the counties responsible for arresting, prosecuting, defending and jailing suspects still struggle to cover the costs of what are essentially unfunded state mandates.

In Pennington County, it will cost taxpayers around $10 million in 2018 to prosecute and provide public defenders to defendants. They will spend around another $11 million on jail operations. Meanwhile, sales tax collections are expected to lag again statewide in 2018, which could impact prisons.

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Yet, Jackley wants to forge ahead with a plan that calls for a 50-year sentence (now 25) for selling meth to a minor; 25 years (now 15) for having cash, a gun or drug-trafficking items while selling, and 15 years (now 10) for selling meth. What is missing from his plan, however, are the resources required to get tougher on this crime and who will pay for it — the state or the counties.

Rather than extend prison sentences and assume it will curb meth use, the state needs more treatment, rehabilitation and supervision of users and low-level dealers, who often are hooked on the drug themselves. The state should stick with the initiatives in the Public Safety Improvement Act and see if we can turn meth addicts into productive citizens before we lock 'em up for decades.

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