A plan to reform South Dakota's criminal justice system cleared its first hurdle Friday.
The Public Safety Improvement Act, which calls for alternative sentencing to keep non-violent offenders out of prison, passed the Senate State Affairs Committee.
"This is by far the most comprehensive change I've seen in the criminal justice system," Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom testified.
The legislation turns to programs like drug and DUI courts as a way to hold offenders accountable by requiring them to attend regular treatment and court dates instead of going to prison.
"These practices have been proven. I think you will find as the judges start to use these more and more, it is not tying their hands. It is actually giving them more tools to deal with the problems in front of them," former South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Judith Meierhenry said.
But defense attorneys objected to the portion of the bill that eliminates preliminary hearings for Class 1 Misdemeanor cases.
Preliminary hearings help prove there is enough evidence to go to trial and defense attorneys say last year, charges were dropped in 15 percent of the Class 1 Misdemeanor cases that had preliminary hearings.
"Those kinds of cases don't need to linger in the system until trial. You should get rid of those right out of the gate because they don't belong in the system," Lindsey Riter-Rapp of the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said.
Those who helped craft the bill say 43 other states do not have preliminary hearings in misdemeanor cases, and by not holding the hearings, it frees up attorneys and judges to focus on the alternative drug and DUI courts.
"Ultimately, the folks on the ground have said this is one area that would allow us to accomplish these other good things but we need to free up resources in another area," Sen. Corey Brown (R) of Gettysburg said.
That's why the bill passed unanimously and virtually unchanged.
"I think (this) profound shift in policy will not only save dollars for taxpayers, but it will actually change lives for the good of South Dakotans," Sen. Craig Tieszen (R) of Rapid City said.
The bill now moves onto the full Senate for debate next week. It still will need to pass the House.