Changes to mental-health evaluations for offenders are making a difference in South Dakota

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A closer relationship that’s developed between South Dakota’s courts and mental-health services during recent years seems to be gradually paying off.

That’s according to the draft of a new annual report from a state monitoring panel.

The South Dakota Oversight Council for Improving Criminal Justices Responses for Persons with Mental Illness put the finishing touches on the report Monday.

One key goal was to expand the number of evaluators who can conduct competency evaluations. They’ve gone from six in 2017 to 33 in 2021.

Previously, the evaluator had to be a licensed or certified psychiatrist or a licensed clinical psychologist. Added were certified social workers, certified nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists and licensed professional counselors in mental health.

The council was created during the 2017 session of the Legislature.

The legislation came backed by then-Chief Justice David Gilbertson from the South Dakota Supreme Court and then-Governor Dennis Daugaard. The House of Representatives passed it 50-17 and the Senate 32-3. Opposition came largely from ultra-conservative Republicans.

Recent efforts involve steering state funding to regional facilities where people with mental health issues can receive care, rather than waiting in jail for space to open at the state Human Services Center in Yankton.

One of the latest changes gives judges an avenue to dismiss criminal cases against people who won’t gain mental competence for reasons such as neuro-cognitive challenges or low IQs.

Senator David Wheeler and Representative Mike Stevens sponsored it.

Betsy Doyle from the Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Office said she knows of at least two instances where judges have dismissed criminal proceedings since the new law took effect July 1. State courts administrator Greg Sattizahn said he knew of one dismissed in Pennington County.

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