South Dakota Examines Prison Reform

PIERRE, S.D. — Prison reform has been a background theme in our country for years, existing primarily as a philosophical debate about how our country should address crime and human failings. Our nation’s current financial woes are changing that dynamic, making prison reform seem less like a theoretical concept and more like a reality that is bearing down upon the entire industry.

Leaders from all three branches of South Dakota’s government announced the creation of a working group in July that will study the possibility of reforming the state’s criminal justice system with the goal of addressing rising operational costs. South Dakota’s prison population has skyrocketed since 1980, with more than 3,600 current inmates, representing a 500 percent increase over that time period, costing the state over $100 million a year. The state is also currently responsible for 7,000 people on probation and 2,400 on parole.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard said the study would focus on finding less-expensive alternatives to current practices, by exploring different ways to provide services, such as offering community drug treatment programs. “This is not about being hard or soft on crime. This is about being smart on crime,” the governor explained.

The incarceration rate in South Dakota is roughly twice as high as in North Dakota and Minnesota. Current projections show the prison population increasing by another 25 percent by 2022, meaning there would be 4,500 prisoners at that point, which would necessitate the addition of two new prisons, one for each gender, at a cost of $224 million for construction and operations.

Chief Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson added that he only had two options in his career as a trial judge: “Either put somebody on probation or send them to the pen. In many of those instances, neither option is what I would have liked to have seen. If you have other alternatives — such as a drug court, alcohol court, or intensive probation — that are proven to work better, at less tax dollars, and gives the judge those sentencing tools in addition to the pen and traditional probation, why wouldn’t you go there?”

Governor Daugaard agreed, “We need to understand what drives probationers into prison, what brings parolees back into prison and see if there’s a means to reducing that number in prison and getting our costs under control and still keeping public safety foremost and holding offenders accountable.”

The work group will study data through October and look into possible policy changes around that time. “It’s emotionally satisfying to say we’re tough on crime,” Daugaard told the Argus Leader, “When you’re tough on crime, you’re being the protector. There’s also a group that offends that maybe is low-risk and nonviolent that we can hold accountable and keep people safe without keeping them behind bars.”

Gilbertson agreed, telling Keloland Television the current system perpetuated two cycles of crime. “Those addicted to alcohol and drugs that are released only to repeat again. The second is their families. I’ve been in criminal justice for 37 years and I’ve seen third generations come through the court system.”

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom assured ABC News that prisons and incarceration would still be part of the state’s plan. “We clearly recognize there are people who need to be warehoused, there’s no other place for them, that’s where they need to be.”

The sheriff said his county was looking into expanding electronic monitoring, so that inmates on work release could sleep at home instead of in jail, freeing up that space for more dangerous offenders.

Prison reform has also reached a fever pitch in Oregon, where a state panel is having difficulty finding cost savings in the state’s prison system. Oregon’s prison population has doubled in the last two decades, reaching 14,000 inmates, and a new Secretary of State audit suggests the system is being managed and staffed in a financially responsible manner, even though the daily cost of housing an inmate has gone from $62.24 a decade ago to $82.48 today.

State Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters said the average length of prison terms increased by nearly a year when the state voted for mandatory-minimum sentences in 1995. Peters said health care accounted for a huge rise in expenses, as annual costs skyrocketed from $72.3 million to $203.9 million over the last decade. She also argued that an aging prison population requires more expensive care.

The audit found that furloughs didn’t provide an effective cost savings for prisons because it wasn’t safe to let staffing levels sink below a certain critical mass, which most facilities were already near. With those possible cost-saving options ruled out, Oregon faces the difficult reality of choosing between funding the current level of enforcement or changing priorities.

The Oregonian points out that other “tough on crime” states like Texas have made surprising changes to their approach to crime fighting when faced with financial problems in the past. Legislators in that state anticipated 17,000 new inmates and a $500 million increase in prison costs over a five-year period starting in 2007. Instead, the state increased funding for community programs by $241 million. The change in tactics seemed to work, as inmate population has only risen by 1,063 since then, and Texas closed a prison for the first time ever. Oregon’s state panel has until mid-December to turn in its report.

Mississippi State Representative George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg and chairman of the House Corrections Committee, announced his intention to find a prison reform solution for his state while speaking at the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute in early August. Flaggs said he anticipated the state would require a deficit appropriation of about $30 million to handle extra expenses in incarcerations at the end of the current fiscal year, after $311.8 million was originally budgeted.

Flaggs argued that the corrections system in his state was overreaching its purpose and that house arrest and treatment would be a more cost effective and efficient way to address many inmates. “I think we have too many people in our system who just have a drug problem,” he said.

The representative also criticized the disparity between different judges’ sentencing practices, resulting in people from different counties getting wildly different sentences for the same crime.

“Doesn’t it make sense to have consistent sentencing guidelines?” he asked.

Despite his penchant for change, Flaggs supported Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, especially in his decision to remove GEO Group, a private prison company, from Walnut Grove Youth Detention Center and two other state prisons after charges of sexual and physical abuse came to light. “It was inhuman,” Flaggs explained. Management and Training Corporation (MTC) replaced GEO on the project.