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Chief Justice Praises Alternative Sentencing

January 9, 2013, 4:55 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

Chief Justice Praises Alternative Sentencing

Seventy South Dakota lawmakers have signed on to legislation that aims at reforming the state's criminal justice system.

The package of recommendations that includes alternative sentencing and supervision for non-violent drug and alcohol offenders was officially filed as Senate Bill 70 Wednesday shortly before Chief Justice David Gilbertson gave his annual State of the Judiciary address.

During his speech, Gilbertson talked about the importance of passing reforms to help stop the growing prison population.

"Nearly 50 percent of those who are sent to prison for drug crimes will be arrested for another drug offense within a few years of their release. The revolving door and the state's open checkbook continue on and on," Gilbertson said.

If nothing is done to stop the growth in the prisons, the state will need to spend more than $200 million on new prisons in the next decade.

That's why the criminal justice reforms include an expansion of drug and DUI courts, which require repeat drug and alcohol addicts to make regular court appearances and attend treatment with the threat of jail time hanging over their heads.

Right now, there are three drug courts in Meade County, Minnehaha County and Yankton County and two DUI courts in Pierre and Aberdeen. Officials want half dozen more of those courts in other parts of the state in the next two years.

"With 41 graduates and 62 current participants, there are 103 empty prison cells in South Dakota, which would otherwise be occupied because of these substance abuse courts," Gilbertson said.

During this session it will be up to lawmakers to decide if the programs should expand and whether the state should continue to fund them.

"After 27 years as a judge, I am not trading in my judicial gavel for a pack of 'get out of jail free' cards.  I am simply asking this legislature that sets the policy to take a look at these types of substance abuse programs as an alternative, in appropriate cases, to more penitentiaries," Gilbertson said.

While some changes can still be made in the criminal justice reform package, it appears the concept of changing the way South Dakota deals with non-violent offenders has broad support in the legislature with 30 of the 35 state Senators signing onto the bill and more than half of the members of the House of Representatives.

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