State lawmakers considered legislation Tuesday that would give South Dakota judges more latitude in where they assign some juvenile offenders.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on HB 1195 and voted 5-2 to endorse it. The full Senate will consider it later this week.
The House voted 51-17 last month for the measure from Representative Kevin Jensen, a Canton Republican.
He described it “an attempt to put a little bit of teeth” in how the courts handle juveniles.
“This is just a tweak to give the judges a little bit more discretion when we reach the end of what we can do with kids,” Jensen said.
He added that juveniles currently have “no fear” because “nothing is happening” in most instances.
He stressed it’s not a reversal of the juvenile justice reforms that took effect in 2015 But, he said, “Crime on the street is not getting better.”
Jensen disputed the Legislative Research Council’s estimate that his bill would cost in excess of an additional $4 million.
“We were paying for this five years ago,” he said. “We re-allocated those dollars some place.”
Senator Al Novstrup, an Aberdeen Republican, told the story of a 15-year-old who committed 20 offenses in one year. “He’s a one-man wrecking ball,” Novstrup said.
Another 15-year-old has been in front of a judge 16 times in a year, Novstrup said. “These kids are costing us money today,” he said.
Also supporting the bill were Roxanne Hammond, the Hughes County state’s attorney who testified for herself;
Diana Miller, a lobbyist for the Large School Group;
Paul Bachand, representing the state’s attorneys association;
Charlie McGuigan, for the state attorney general; and
Lori Martinec, for the police chiefs association.
Leading off the opponent testimony was Greg Sattizahn, administrator for the state Unified Judicial System. He said higher-level crimes have stayed steady while lower-level crimes have increased. “I feel like it’s important to correct some of this,” Sattizahn said.
Of 384 who weren’t successful on probation last year, 104 committed felony-level offenses, Sattizahn said. He said Jensen’s legislation would open the door of the corrections system to juvenile probation violators.
Sattizahn said the state oversight council needs to find ways to better deliver services for violators in their communities.
Kristi Bunkers, director of juvenile services for the state Department of Corrections, also spoke against the bill. She said South Dakota had the highest rate of out-of-home placements before the changes and estimated the additional 94 to 110 commitments per year would cost an additional $7 million.
“This has been a major system shift for South Dakota, and it hasn’t been without challenges,” Bunkers acknowledged.
Another opponent was Amy Iversen-Pollreisz, deputy secretary for the state Department of Social Services. She said the department is placing staff in schools to work with students and families.
Doug Abraham, representing criminal defense lawyers, was against it too. He said juvenile offenders already can be placed in the corrections system for violent crimes, sex offenses and higher-level crimes, as well as juveniles who are threats to others.
“The judges didn’t come asking for more authority here,” Abraham said.
Novstrup in rebuttal said the bill is to give “a 1 percent tweak.”
Senator Art Rusch, a Vermillion Republican who has been a state’s attorney and a circuit judge, said he didn’t know the solution but wasn’t certain the legislation was the right way.
Senator Lynne DiSanto, a Box Elder Republican, called for the change. She said some juvenile offenders need to be taken away from their families.
Senator Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican who’s been a state’s attorney, said he’s disappointed the administration hasn’t brought a solution. “We have perpetrated something on our communities that never should have happened,” Russell said.
The legislation would make the following changes:
“The court may only commit the child to the Department of Corrections for placement in a foster home, group home, group care center, residential treatment center, or other community-based services, if those community-based services were not provided prior to commitment, pursuant to chapter 26-11A, and if the judge finds that:
“(a) No viable alternative exists;
“(b) The Department of Corrections is the least restrictive alternative; and
“(c) From evidence presented at the dispositional hearing or from the predispositional report that the child is currently on probation, that probation has been unsuccessful and that no other appropriate services are available in the child’s community.”