S.D. panel will hold another ‘final’ meeting on whether illegal ingestion of drugs should stay a felony

Capitol News Bureau
KELO jail prison bars GENERIC

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Legislature’s interim group studying how felony ingestion of controlled substances is affecting South Dakota’s prison populations was supposed to finish up Friday.

Instead the committee decided after three hours to take the coming week, consider the choices and meet one more time.

A teleconference is scheduled for 9 a.m. CT Friday, November 8.

The chairman is Representative Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican and lawyer who is speaker for the state House of Representatives.

“Hopefully we’ll produce some good results out of this,” Haugaard said.

South Dakota is the only state where illegal ingestion of a controlled substance — having it in your body — is a felony offense.

As of September 30, there were 353 men and women in South Dakota’s state prisons for ingestion as the most serious offense, according to data Laurie Feiler, deputy secretary for the state Department of Corrections, presented Friday.

A state law passed in the 2019 session created the study group. The law requires a report to the governor and Legislature before the 2020 session starts January 14.

The panel has two roles.

One is to consider 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.

The second is to look for possible funding alternatives and weigh the financial effects of controlled substance offenses.

State courts administrator Greg Sattizahn, who serves on the panel, said the Unified Judicial System would ask the Legislature for seven more positions for court-service officers at an estimated cost of about $491,000.

Sattizahn said the courts need 20. “That would get us to where we’re meeting our caseload demands,” he said.

State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, another panel member, supported requesting the seven. “I know there is a need. I’ve talked to people throughout the state,” Ravnsborg said. “I think this is a good step forward.” 

Senator Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat on the group, asked when the other 13 would be added. Sattizahn said there would be more requested next year and noted the courts’ budget request seeks five other new positions.

“I think for us, two to three years was the plan to get there,” Sattizahn said. The state courts system supervises approximately 10,000 adults and juveniles per year and about 6,500 on any given day.

Haugaard noted that more intensive supervision of offenders by drug courts is more effective — about 18 percent who commit further crimes versus about 28 percent of the general population of inmates — and estimated that means 500 fewer people committing new crimes per year.

“We might be back to that to visit a little bit more,” Haugaard said. 

Social Services deputy secretary Amy Iversen-Pollreisz presented data the committee wanted. She said the department could use more state funding for 22 additional beds for patients needing drug treatment.

Jane Parsons of Pierre, a recovering opioid addict, testified during the public-comment portion of the meeting. She said the possibility of losing her family and going to prison didn’t stop her from breaking the law.

Parsons is one of the people featured in the state Health Department’s current ‘Avoid Opioids’ advertising campaign. She was a nurse and now is a local counselor who holds sessions at the state women’s prison at Pierre. “I had one traffic ticket before my addiction took over,” she said.

Kennedy offered a draft of legislation would change ingestion to a class-one misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, and allow the courts to impose probation up to two years, double the current maximum for a misdemeanor.

“I am not trying to water down drug laws,” Kennedy said. “This is about trying to use our resources more wisely,” Kennedy said.

Prosecutors participating in the meeting — Ravnsborg, Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan and Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo — spoke against reducing ingestion to a misdemeanor. They said the potential of a felony helps them reach pleas with offenders.

Vargo said one of the unintended consequences of SB 70, a major rewrite of South Dakota’s criminal laws for adults in 2013, was it decreased the motivation for defendants to cooperate and give up sources. “I don’t know how much worse it can get from where it is,” Vargo said. 

Ravnsborg said “less people” would have an incentive to go to hope court or drug court if they know they face only a misdemeanor for ingestion. “Information has dried up, significantly, from Senate Bill 70,” he said.

Kennedy offered another draft that offers diversion incentives for adults. He said it’s patterned on the juvenile diversion program and what’s being used in Pennington County. He said it would let prosecutors be creative.

“I don’t think any of us have THE answer,” Kennedy said.

Haugaard said he wants to focus on more funding to cover the gaps left by SB 70 and remains interested in discussions on expunging, or wiping clean, an offender’s record if there’s long-range proof of rehabilitation.

“We actually have to put some dollars behind the change, I think,” he said.

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