Reforming South Dakota’s Criminal Justice System

Feb 4, 2020 by AFP

In South Dakota, we have many opportunities to reform our criminal justice system and remove barriers to opportunity that will provide second chances to those that have paid their debts. We must eliminate barriers that block formerly incarcerated individuals from successfully returning to our communities after they’ve served their time and focus on treating addiction rather than incarcerating those charged with low-level drug offenses. This legislative session we will focus on policy changes to focus on treating the root cause of addiction rather than incarceration for low-level drug offenses, as evidence show that overcriminalization does not solve for addiction and instead leads to barriers that last a lifetime.

Senate Bill 114: Diversion Incentive Program

Diversion from incarceration and treatment of the underlying causes of addiction create stronger families, lower taxpayer burdens, and ensure healthier, contributing members of society. The South Dakota Department of Corrections will provide $250 to counties for every defendant that successfully completes a diversion program for drug possession. These diversion programs refer defendants to treatment as an alternative to criminal convictions and incarceration, reducing caseloads, taxpayer burdens, and help treat the root cause of addiction. Those who successfully complete diversion programs have charges against them permanently dismissed, reducing the additional burdens that come with criminal records. While this legislation is a step in the right direction, it should be clearer regarding funding and allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide which individuals have access to diversion programs.

Senate Bill 115: Drug Use Penalty Reclassification  

South Dakota is the only state in the country that criminalizes possession by ingestion, signaling a clear need to update the state’s criminal code on this matter. This bill seeks to reclassify unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance from a felony to a misdemeanor for the first two offenses in a ten-year period. This legislation is a step in the right direction, but the South Dakota legislature should eventually repeal this unnecessary statute entirely.

Senate Bills 6 & 7: Presumptive Probation Restrictions  

Presumptive probation allows low-level offenders increased opportunity to rehabilitate without adding to South Dakota’s overcrowded prison population. Senate Bill 6 would limit judges’ ability to presume probation sentences by excluding defendants who fail to cooperate with law enforcement, without defining the term, opening the door to abuse. Senate Bill 7 would limit eligibility for presumptive probation to twice within a 10-year period. This flawed standard ignores that many people charged with drug crimes suffer from addiction, and that relapse can be an unfortunate reality for those going through recovery. Treatment, not incarceration, should be the first resort for addressing addiction, and the blanket standard Senate Bill 7 imposes undermines this principle. Judges already use their discretion to deny probation when appropriate, but SB7 would tie their hands. Neither bill is in the best interests of South Dakotans and each undermines presumptive probation’s role in treating the root cause of addiction.