Guest Commentary

In South Dakota, we have an opportunity to make our state safer and save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. It is an opportunity we must seize.

South Dakota's prison population has grown by six times in the last 35 years. Spending on corrections has tripled in the last 20 years alone. Our state locks up more people, per capita, than any of our bordering states. We lock up 75 percent more men than North Dakota and four times as many women as Minnesota. We are a clear outlier.

Unfortunately, these high levels of imprisonment have not made our state safer. In the past decade, 17 states have lowered their imprisonment rates while also lowering their crime rates at twice the rate that South Dakota's went down.

If we do nothing, our prison population will grow  by 900 inmates – that's 25 percent – in the next 10 years, costing taxpayers $224 million.  We will need to build two new prisons.

This spring, I joined the Chief Justice and legislative leaders in engaging over 400 stakeholders before establishing a bipartisan, inter-branch work group to look into this problem.  The group included law enforcement, judges, legislators, treatment providers, defense attorneys, and prosecutors.

We asked this work group to see if we could improve public safety, hold offenders more accountable, and get a better return on our public safety dollars. I'm pleased that the work group came back with robust recommendations.

Following my State of the State address, the Chief Justice and 70 legislators, including the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate, joined me in submitting the South Dakota Public Safety Improvement Act.

This measure, Senate Bill 70, will improve supervision on probation and parole through expanded treatment and reduced caseloads, and it will use proven tools like drug courts and a new 24/7-style program for drug offenders.

It will focus our prison space on violent and career criminals by punishing drug kingpins more harshly than users while ensuring swift and certain sanctions for offenders.

Finally, the bill calls for improved victim notification and restitution collection, and it requires that all of these programs be measured and evaluated for effectiveness, year after year.

This path will save our state tens of millions of dollars in prison costs while keeping South Dakota safer. This is the right path forward, and I'm not alone in supporting the measure. I'm joined by the Chief Justice, Attorney General, Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Victims Advocates, State's Attorneys, County Commissioners, the State Bar, and Treatment Providers.

South Dakota is showing, once again, that we can work together to find common sense, smart solutions to our biggest problems.

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