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South Dakota's Growing & Shrinking Problem

October 16, 2012, 9:55 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

South Dakota's Growing & Shrinking Problem

South Dakota's prison population has grown 500 percent in the last 30 years. That's just one of the issues South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson says is a crucial concern for the state's judicial system.

Gilbertson is also concerned that the number of attorneys in rural South Dakota is declining while the prison population has mushroomed.

"When I was a trial judge in the 1980's, the late '80's, there were less than 30 women in the entire state in the penitentiary. Today, I believe the population for the women's pen in Pierre is probably about 460," Gilbertson said.

The men's prison system is no different, growing from 600 inmates in 1980 to 3,600 today, and if the state doesn't come up with a solution soon, it could be costly.

"I've heard estimates if we have to build a new men's and women's prison just the cost of the construction could be anywhere from a quarter to a half a billion dollars," Gilbertson said.

That's why Gilbertson along with Governor Dennis Daugaard have organized a task force to study the state's prison population and look at alternative sentencing for drug and alcohol offenders. Programs like the 24/7 sobriety program, where individuals have to take daily breath tests instead of going to jail, or the current drug court, where the judicial system tries to reform the offender instead of putting them behind bars.

Many of the inmates who are locked up are there because of addictions.

"If you can cure them of the addiction, at least our drug court experience shows that, they don't come back into our system. They get a job. They support their kids. They maintain a home and they're paying taxes instead of costing the taxpayers," Gilbertson said.

The State Bar of South Dakota has formed a task force to study the lack of attorneys in rural South Dakota.

"So when you get down to the small size, rural areas, there are very, very few attorneys left and most of them are at an age where they are going to be leaving the profession," Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson calls the shortage ‘severe’ and says attorneys aren't just needed in small towns for criminal cases, but also for legal services for the community.

"What about the people that simply need to go to an attorney to have a will drafted or a deed drawn and have to drive 100 miles for that is inconvenient," Gilbertson said.

The task force is launching a website and looking at ways to attract new lawyers to smaller towns.

As far as solving the multi-million dollar issue facing South Dakota's prisons, Gilbertson says legislators will be the ones to decide on new alternative sentencing methods and if the state does need to build new prisons.

"The end decision rests with the legislature. Nobody is trying to mandate anything here, but it's simply to have a thorough discussion of options," Gilbertson said.

The State Bar of South Dakota has set up a website called 'Project Rural Practice' in an effort to bring more attention to the shrinking number of rural attorneys. You can visit the website by clicking here.

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