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Smart on Crime


Location: Unknown

About a month ago, legislative leadership, the Chief Justice and I announced the formation of the Criminal Justice Initiative. This initiative has three goals: make the public safer, hold criminals accountable for their actions, and use public funds efficiently.

Since the initial announcement, a work group comprised of law enforcement, prosecutors, legislators, defense attorneys, judges, treatment providers, and members of my staff have met several times to look at ways to achieve those goals.

I have no policy change proposals which are driving this effort. Neither does the Chief Justice or the members of the work group. Policy proposals, if any, should come at the end -- after the facts have been examined, and evidence-based practices have been studied.

Thus far, work group meetings have been a good examination of South Dakota's criminal justice system, from probation to prison to parole. The group is considering what other states do, and how they spend their corrections' dollars. We should not be afraid to look critically at ourselves. If we find something we cannot defend, then perhaps it is indefensible and needs to be changed.

In short, we don't know what policies will come from this initiative, as it is still in the fact-gathering and policy-considering stages.

There are a few issues and ideas that this work group is not considering. The work group is not discussing letting current offenders out of prison. The work group is not considering changes to the death penalty, the juvenile justice system, or the sex-offender registry. The work group is not considering deeper societal questions that could be a root cause of crime, such as poverty or education. These are important issues, but they are so complex in their own right that they could overwhelm the discussion. The group is instead focusing on increased public safety, more offender accountability, and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

South Dakota incarcerates more people per capita than our neighboring states -- nearly twice the rate of North Dakota and Minnesota. South Dakota's prisons are filling, and locking more people up has a significant cost. Projections show that -- if we change nothing -- our prison population will increase 25 percent over the next 10 years, at an additional $224 million cost. At our current rate, we will need to build a new women's prison in just a few years and another men's prison not long afterward. The dollars we would use are funds that we could not spend on other priorities, such as education, economic development, or infrastructure.

This does not mean that our prisons are full and we should stop locking people up. We should and will continue to lock up dangerous, violent career criminals.

We should never be afraid of self-examination. I look forward to the recommendations of the work group, because I believe we will find ways to improve. I believe we can do a better job of keeping the public safe, while spending tax dollars more effectively. That will allow us to spend more on schools, roads and job creation, or provide tax relief.

We are committed to making South Dakota safer, holding criminals more accountable, and providing taxpayers with a better public safety return for their corrections' dollars.

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