Two groups are pushing to put the state’s prisons on top of South Dakota legislators’ 2013 docket. The ACLU and South Dakota Families First turn to a documentary to elevate the issue, following the release of a final report of the South Dakota Criminal Justice Initiative work group completed late last year. It found that if the state doesn't change its incarceration guidelines, millions of dollars will have to be invested in new prisons over the next ten years.
“I think it's just unconscionable that a low level drug user will get a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence and it happens every week in our court,” Iowa Federal Court Judge Mark W. Bennett said.
Bennett's Iowa bench is among the most crowded in the country. He's sent more than 3,500 offenders to federal prison, many of them for low level drug crimes. And Bennett has put that experience on film.
“And it costs so much money,” Bennett said. “So the social costs go far beyond the costs of incarcerating an inmate. And if we pent a tenth of the money we do on incarceration on treatment, society would be much better off.”
Bennett is featured in the documentary, "The House I Live In." It examines the nation’s growing prison population due, in part, to the war on drugs. In the end, he says prisons rarely fill up with drug king pins, but the low level users, which doesn't cut the root of the problem.
“Over 50 percent are drug addicts serving very lengthy mandatory minimum sentence on drug crimes and I think that's just unconscionable,” he said.
South Dakota isn't immune to the issue either. A prison initiative study says the state outpaced national trends, increasing by 500 percent over 30 years to more than 3,600 inmates in 2012. More than 80 percent of new prisoners sentenced were non-violent crimes.
“I'm not saying most defendants don't deserve some period of incarceration. I think they probably do,” Bennett said.
If things don't change, the taxpayer cost could mean more than 220 million more dollars pumped into the state's prison system over ten years. The state criminal justice initiative set up a number of recommendations to change penalties to reduce the costs. It’s up to legislators to decide beginning this month if the proposals will become reality.
Another showing of "The House I Live In" is set for Saturday afternoon in Rapid City.