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January 16, 2013 09:53 PM

Pressure On The Prisons

Pierre, SD

If South Dakota doesn't do something about its growing inmate population, the state would have to spend more than $200 million on new prisons in the next decade. That's why alternatives for locking up offenders are a priority during this year's legislative session.

If you go behind the bars of South Dakota's women's prison you'll find out why the state is looking into criminal justice reform.

"We are in the top five in the country for incarceration of females in South Dakota," South Dakota Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk said.

South Dakota locks up four times as many women as Minnesota and right now there are more than 400 women serving their sentences behind bars. Thirty years ago there was only an average of 40 women in prison in the state. Kaemingk says the women's prison is just one area where they are feeling pressure from a growing inmate population.

"Where we're looking at issues down the road is our low-medium and our minimum facilities and the women's prison," Kaemingk said.

State correctional facilities are filling up with non-violent offenders. Eighty percent of the inmates admitted to the prison system last year were not considered violent. That's why this past summer Governor Dennis Daugaard formed the criminal justice initiative work group to find ways to stop the sky-rocketing numbers.

"We have the highest incarceration rate in our region, two and four times as great as some of our sister states and we're not getting better public safety," Daugaard said.

What the group came up with is a package of recommendations called the Public Safety Improvement Act. It encourages more drug and DUI courts in South Dakota which keep non-violent offenders out of prison by requiring them to attend regular court hearings and treatment.

The idea is to keep the offenders in the community, working at a job and supporting their family while still being held accountable.

"We can save money. We can make South Dakota even safer and we can hold our offenders accountable in a better and more effective way," Daugaard said.

"By keeping an individual in the community, keeping the individual working in that community, supporting their family, it's just a win-win situation for everybody," Kaemingk said.

The legislation also alters sentences for drug crimes and grand theft convictions to match the time in prison with the severity of the crimes.

"This is a major policy shift for the state of South Dakota in corrections. This is in fact a big deal," state Senator Craig Tieszen said.

Seventeen other states have focused on lowering their imprisonment rate over the past decade similar to what the South Dakota legislature is looking to do now. Daugaard says the crime rates in those states have fallen twice as fast as South Dakotas.

"I think we do need to keep people accountable. There's no doubt about that but I think some of those people can change their behavior. If we put them in the right circumstances, give them the right opportunities, hold them accountable, I think we can change some of them," Tieszen said.

And by keeping those low-risk offenders in the community with more supervision and more accountability programs, officials hope it can also keep South Dakota safer by allowing corrections officials to focus on the violent and dangerous inmates.

"If we lower the number of low-risk individuals we will have more of an opportunity to deal and spend time with, treatment and supervision on the high-risk individuals," Kaemingk said.

The idea seems to have wide support already, 70 of the legislature's 105 lawmakers have signed on as sponsors of the legislation and several public safety groups have thrown their support behind the concept.

"We've got endorsement of the sheriff's association, endorsement of the police chief's association, the counties that recognize jail costs that they have," Daugaard said.

And while there is a lot of support behind the initiative already, lawmakers know that there will likely be questions and changes along the way.

"Certainly a lot of questions to be asked," Tieszen said. "We don't pass a 33 page bill at a moments notice but I think we're headed down the right track."

"I just believe it's a very exciting time to be in corrections right now. We have an opportunity with this initiative to have a positive influence on many lives in the State of South Dakota," Kaemingk said.

The legislation is scheduled to have its first hearing in front of the Senate State Affairs committee on Friday.

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