State of the state addresses are usually a laundry list of accomplishments and projects the governor wants the legislature to back. Governor Dennis Daugaard’s address to the 2013 Legislature wasn’t much different except that the “projects” is one major task — change the state’s criminal justice system.
By the numbers, the governor outlined the fact that within 10 years, the state’s prison population will balloon to more than 4,500 inmates, forcing the state to build two new prisons and spend an extra $224 million dollars. “Not surprisingly, the growth in our prison population comes with a price tag,” Daugaard said.
- The state’s prison population jumped by 500 percent since 1977, more than the national average.
- Since 2000, the number of prisoners increased 41 percent; female inmates more than doubling.
- South Dakota has the 23rd highest imprisonment rate in the nation and the highest in the region.
“I first doubted the data,” the governor said. “Then I wondered if our public safety was better. ‘More bad guys in prison equal less crime,’ I thought. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Our public safety is no better than places with lower imprisonment rates. During the past 10 years, 17 states lowered their imprisonment rates. During that same time, all 17 of those states also lowered their crime rates. In fact, the crime rate in those states has fallen twice as fast as South Dakota’s crime rate has. Our approach isn’t better,” he explained.
Last summer, a Criminal Justice Initiative working group hammered out what the problems are. In a nutshell, there are too many non-violent criminals in prison. So they made a list of recommendations in the group’s final report in November.
In his address today, the governor focused on three of the 18 recommendations:
- Alternative courts – more drug and DUI courts, which have major success rates.
- “Hope” program – similar to the alcohol 24/7 program, drug abusers will be aggressively monitored to ensure they stay off drugs; with random testing and swift and certain sanctions if they continue to abuse.
- Supervise offenders – 80 percent of new prisoners are non-violent; they could be on probation.
“This set of proposals isn’t about being soft on crime,” Daugaard stressed. “This is about being smart on crime. If implemented, the recommendations of the final report are estimated to save our state $200 million in averted prison construction and operating expenses over the next decade.”
While many of the governor’s proposals last year met with lawmaker and voter disapproval, the criminal justice reform legislation, filed in the state Senate today, seems to have immediate appeal to both political parties.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton says the criminal justice reforms are needed because the current system is not working.
Rank and file Republicans agreed.
“I support it 100 percent. It’s something that’s been needed for a very long time,” Representative Timothy Johns, District 31, said. As a retired state judge, Johns knows the good and the bad of the criminal justice system. “It has been proven that the DUI courts and the drug courts do work. Currently, we have far too many people incarcerated in South Dakota for non-violent crimes.”
But Johns cringes a little at the word “reform.” “We aren’t really reforming justice,” Johns explained. “We’re just refining the avenues and providing for public safety and rehabilitation.”
Another lawmaker with vast criminal justice experience, retired police chief and Senator Craig Tieszan, District 34, says it is a big policy shift for the state. “We talked in criminal justice about those people that we’re afraid of and those people we we’re mad at. Those that we’re afraid of, we lock up. People that we’re mad at, we should consider the best way to deal with them. It doesn’t mean that we don’t inflict some sort of punishment, but at the same time we should try and change behavior,” Tieszan said.
Representative Don Kopp, District 35, sits on the House Judiciary Committee. He says it is a “great idea. It’s time has come. It will make people more accountable and punish those who are real offenders. They (non-violent offenders) can go back in the community, as long as they keep their noses clean.”
“I think putting the emphasis up front rather than just spending our dollars to incarcerate people in the penitentiary; spending money on treatment programs, mental health, close supervision, on 24/7 kinds of programs … that emphasis is going have a really big impact,” Tieszan added.
Other State of the State issues:
- The governor wants to make the tourism tax permanent because of the effect that tax has in promoting the state and bringing visitors in.
- He wants another $2 million to fight the pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills.
- Student remediation courses should be in high school, not college. The governor says students shouldn’t spend time and money in their first college semester catching up. This should be done before they enter college.
- And Daugaard wants a military spouse license portability law. When a military family is transferred to South Dakota, about 35 percent of the spouses are out of work while they apply for state licenses and certificates. He thinks licenses should be transferrable from other states.
Of course, the federal deficit and the looming congressional fight over the debt ceiling was the 800-pound gorilla in the room that Daugaard tackled at the end of his address. He said he didn’t want to be an “alarmist” but the lawmakers need to think about what damage the federal budget mess could have on the state, school districts and local governments.