Prison Policy Initiative report highlights need for criminal justice reform in South Dakota

September 23, 2019 1:30 pm

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South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative, and nearly half of all arrests are drug or alcohol related, compared to just 29 percent nationally. Additionally, racial disparities in South Dakota’s jails are far greater than the nationwide average.

While the statistics are important to identify trends in criminal activity and aid in crime prevention and enforcement efforts, the ACLU of South Dakota says the stats highlight the need for criminal justice reform and should be considered by the group conducting an interim study on controlled substance offenses for the South Dakota Legislature.

The interim study group, made of legislators, law enforcement, court administrators, the South Dakota Attorney General and the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, meets today in Pierre.

Drug-related offenses

The number of drug arrests in South Dakota does not mean there’s been an increase in drug use in the state. Drug use rates in South Dakota have stayed relatively stable over time, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

“Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, we can’t incarcerate our way out of addiction,” said Libby Skarin, ACLU of South Dakota policy director. “The enormous amount of money South Dakota spends on jailing people for drug-related offenses is disproportionate and causes more harm than good to individuals struggling with addiction, their families and their communities.”

That’s why the ACLU of South Dakota is advocating for a smarter approach to drug-related offenses and supports initiatives such as reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor.

“Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse,” Skarin said.

South Dakota is the only state that imposes a felony for ingestion of a controlled substance. Reducing the penalty for ingestion of a controlled substance from a felony to a misdemeanor would save the state an estimated $50 million dollars in department of corrections expenses over 10 years, according to a Legislative Research Council’s prison and jail cost estimate in 2018.

Racial disparities exist in jails nationwide, but are higher in South Dakota

Although Native American make up about 9 percent of South Dakota’s population, they are roughly half of those booked into jails in the state. While racial disparities in incarceration rates exist nationwide —black people are jailed at more than four times the rate of white people, for instance — the disparities in South Dakota are far greater: According to data from the Vera Institute of Justice, Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 64 are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people in South Dakota. This disparity is particularly acute for drug- and alcohol-related offenses, where Native Americans account for the majority of all arrests in the state.

“It’s time to come to terms with the significant racial disparities that are so ingrained in our criminal legal system,” Skarin said. “This is not something that can be mitigated by solely reducing the number of arrests in South Dakota. Our elected officials need to acknowledge the realities of these racial disparities and commit to tackling them head-on. Additionally, reinvesting some taxpayer dollars currently spent on the criminal justice system to diversion and treatment programs designed to combat drug and alcohol addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to substance use and abuse.”

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