There needs to be alternatives to prison time in South Dakota

prisonAT ISSUE: The Criminal Justice Initiative task force recently named by Governor Dennis Daugaard has its work cut out for it. The Governor named the 18 person panel to see if it can make South Dakota’s prison system more efficient and economical, perhaps more in line with neighboring states of North Dakota and Minnesota.

THOSE WHO have seen the numbers probably think South Dakota is a tough on crime state. For example, our state has 415 prisoners per 100,000 residents where North Dakota has 226 prisoners per 100,000 residents and Minnesota has only 185 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

I suspect those two states have at least as much crime as is within our borders, but they don’t have the numbers in their prisons that we do. Why? What are their alternatives to sending their bad guys and gals up the river? Or aren’t they getting caught?

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On top of that, South Dakota in a few weeks will have an execution, the first one in several years. That is when Donald Moeller faces the lethal injection sometime between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. That will be the ultimate price Moeller will pay for raping and killing nine-year-old Becky O’Connell. After 22 years he finally admitted performing the crime.

With the comparison of the numbers of prisoners per 100,000 residents with North Dakota and Minnesota and the fact South Dakota still has the death penalty on the books, perhaps the reputation of our state being tough on crime is true.

But are there alternatives to those numbers in the state, and us still having the death penalty for such atrocious crimes? There are, but implementing them could be very political.

WHAT IS REALLY scary are the projected prison populations in a few years if this committee and the Legislature don’t come up now with some answers.

In the report, Daugaard said South Dakota’s prison population has grown from 600 in 1980 to 3,600 today and if the projections are anywhere close it means the state in the next five years or so will have to build both a new prison for men and a new one for women. The price tag for such an undertaking is $126 Million. At the same time the state’s annual corrections budget is $100,000.

He also noted that at the present rate the inmate population would grow another one-fourth to 4,500 in the next 10 years at an annual cost of $224 million. While these numbers are staggering, I might add this includes the $126 million for the two new prisons and $98 million in additional operating expenses. But no matter how one looks at it, it still is a lot of bucks to have to spend on the bad guys and gals for a small state like South Dakota.

THE GOVERNOR spoke at a news conference when he announced the 18-person task force to study South Dakota’s growing prison population.

He also noted he had no preconceived notions about studying the problem would lead to lessor times in the pokey. However, he discussed a report that noted that South Dakota has a prison population that is increasingly consisting of low-level offenders convicted of non-violent crimes, and the rising corrections budget “has not yielded commensurate improvements to public safety.”

PERHAPS THAT IS where the answer is. But more on that later.

The work group consists of six legislators from both parties, three judges and others from the state’s legal system or the governor’s office. They are to meet monthly to produce policy recommendations by November so Governor Daugaard can take them to the next legislative session in January.

AND THAT MAY be where there is a potential problem.

First, the potential problem. The paradigm is too much “in the box.” So much thinking today is supposed to be “out of the box.” But when you have six legislators and at least three judges and others from the legal system, and still others from the Governor’s office I would have to say you pretty well have them tied into a box that is tied shut with about as much bureaucratized string the Governor could pull out of his tight state budget.

Outsiders’ viewpoints often have merit as well. There are even times when “out of the mouths of babes” will astound the minds of even the most intellectuals.

THERE ARE SOME alternatives to lockups already out there. For instance, from what I’ve heard the test runs on ankle bracelets, both in the home and at work, have been fairly successful. More home confinement could also be in the offing. I know if I was up for a third or fourth time for DUIs, I’d rather be almost anywhere but in the clutches of my wife.

Also, in the words of South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson, various local jurisdictions have treatment and probation programs that might be able to serve the entire state. And perhaps at a lessor cost than what the price tag is to the state.

So here’s where the scale of justice has a big role to play. Keeping it balanced might be the trick here….


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Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion, retiring after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.
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