State courts plan to use mental telehealth services in rural parts of South Dakota

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State government’s courts want the Legislature’s approval to look at how mental telehealth services could work in some of South Dakota’s rural counties.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson has asked lawmakers for permission to spend up to $418,000 for the study.

The money would come from outside state government.

Gilbertson said in his State of the Judiciary message to the Legislature earlier this month that he has discussed the idea with the trustee for the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

House Bill 1090 to allow the spending was assigned to the Joint Committee on Appropriations, whose 18 legislators put together state government’s budget each year.

The state’s Unified Judicial System currently operates mental-health courts in South Dakota’s two largest communities.

Rapid City served 13 people last year, Gilbertson said. Sioux Falls began its mental-health court this month.

Gilbertson said the Rapid City program was successful.

“It promises to provide significant mental health services to defendants whose underlying reason for becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system is mental illness. To treat them instead of incarcerating them for lengthy periods of time is more effective, reduces costs and reduces the likelihood of repeat trips into the criminal justice system,” he told lawmakers.

The need is great for the Sioux Falls mental-health court, according to Gilbertson: “In just five months in 2018, 515 or 13.5 percent of the prisoners screened at intake in the Minnehaha County Jail indicated they may suffer from a mental illness.”

The Legislature spent the past two years working on changes to state laws on telehealth services, especially for those needing mental help, with Senator Deb Soholt, a Sioux Falls Republican, serving a central role. She chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

At least eight pieces of legislation developed during 2019 are under consideration in the 2020 session. SB 1 and HB 1005 are on the Senate floor today.

Governor Kristi Noem and her administration have also agreed to participate in the courts system’s study for using mental telehealth in rural areas, according to the chief justice.

He said the expansion could help judges deliver better proceedings and sentencing and provide court-services officers with tools to better supervise and rehabilitate people with mental health issues who are on probation.

There also could be times when the services assist prosecutors, Gilbertson said.

South Dakota’s state prisons are full, according to the state Department of Corrections. But there haven’t been many prominent voices in state government calling for constructing more prisons, especially when state tax revenue has been growing slowly, even after recovery began from the great recession of a decade ago.

“This is extremely important to everybody, as more people are placed on probation than sent to the penitentiaries,” Gilbertson said.

Wanting to avoid the construction costs and ongoing expenses of one or two additional prisons was one of the reasons the chief justice and then-Governor Dennis Daugaard led the Legislature to adopt Senate Bill 70 in the 2013 session.

Among its many changes, SB 70 allows circuit judges to grant what’s known as presumptive probation and waive prison time for many offenders convicted for the two lowest classes of felony crimes.

State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has proposed changes in SB 6 and SB 7 that would revise judges’ leeway to grant probation. Ravnsborg has argued that presumptive probation takes away prosecutors’ leverage on drug crimes.

The oversight council that accompanied SB 70 meanwhile has expired after five years. Gilbertson said that doesn’t mean it’s not important to continue to consider the effects.

“The UJS stands ready to continue this examination,” the chief justice told lawmakers.

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