S.D. controlled-substances panel wants more funding for treatment, parole and courts

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) – South Dakota needs more funding to help people caught illegally using controlled substances, a state-government panel informally decided Tuesday.

An overhaul of state criminal-sentencing laws six years ago didn’t have enough funding, especially as methamphetamine swept through South Dakota, according to several members.

One was Representative Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican and the House speaker. He chairs the study committee the Legislature’s Executive Board appointed.

Haugaard referred to Senate Bill 70 that the Legislature overwhelmingly approved in 2013, after a study headed by then-Governor Dennis Daugaard and state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson.

“I think what we can all agree on is funding for treatment was never provided,” Haugaard said.  

He said the panel would meet another time before submitting its final report to the legislative board, which he co-chairs.

There are 353 men and women in South Dakota’s state prison system for the crime of ingesting controlled substances. South Dakota is the only state in the nation where ingesting illegal drugs — using them, in other words — is a felony.

State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan both argued that ingestion shouldn’t be reduced to a misdemeanor.

“I believe it would make our prosecutions tougher,” Ravnsborg said. 

“I concur with the attorney general,” McGowan said. “It would be disastrous.”

McGowan said there would be less incentive for defendants to cooperate with prosecutors and there wouldn’t be as much incentive for pleading guilty in a situation where multiple people faced ingestion charges.

Haugaard summarized the committee’s position that more money is needed for more treatment, more court services and more parole officers.

Ravnsborg agreed. “We do need to add treatment components,” he said. 

Senator Jeff Partridge, a Rapid City Republican who sponsored the legislation that created the committee, said the state court system has already submitted a budget request for fiscal 2021 that calls for more funding for 11 additional staff.

Partridge’s measure SB 167 called for a committee to look into two sets of information:

“Alternatives to imprisonment for any person charged and convicted of controlled substance offenses, in order to more adequately assist the person with substance abuse issues; (and)

“Possible funding alternatives, as well as the financial ramifications of controlled substance offenses on the state, the counties of the state, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment facilities and any other interested person that may be affected.”

Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, signed it into law March 27. Partridge’s bill spun off a measure that Senator Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat, brought. Kennedy continued Tuesday to question why ingestion is a felony.

“And it costs us millions of dollars a year to incarcerate these people,” Kennedy said. He cited a report that showed felony ingestion cost South Dakota taxpayers more than $5 million annually to house those prisoners.

“We’ve got hundreds of people sitting in the penitentiary because they used drugs. That hasn’t worked,” he said.  

Corrections Secretary Mike Leidholt said he didn’t agree there would be fewer people in prison if the Legislature made ingestion a misdemeanor.

“I think the drug problem is still going to be there,” Leidholt said.

He agreed putting more resources into treatment and prevention are good ideas. 

The committee seemed to have consensus Tuesday that people facing ingestion charges should have a variety of services available.

Drug court Judge Patricia Riepel of Sioux Falls said money is needed to look at why so many Native Americans — approximately two-thirds of women inmates and about half of male inmates — comprise those in prison for ingestion when they are about one-tenth of South Dakota’s population.

Haugaard praised Pennington County’s programs as leaders. Kennedy liked Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo’s idea of adapting juvenile diversion incentives to adults.

Ravnsborg suggested using television systems for evaluations of ingestion defendants in rural counties “because you’re going to gain more knowledge about their situation is.” He also said he was “open” to more drug courts in more places. 

Haugaard said cell phones could be used for remote contact between court and law enforcement personnel and defendants. Kennedy cautioned that some defendants don’t have resources to pay for electronic monitoring, certain tests and cell phones. 

Haugaard said it might be appropriate for state government to pay for those things because they would be less expensive than putting people in prison. 

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