Gov. proposes changes in treatment of juveniles

Gov. Dennis Daugaard

We have much to be proud of in South Dakota. Our state has the third lowest unemployment rate in the nation. We’re among the states with the lowest cost of living. Just a few weeks ago Pew named South Dakota as the state with the least volatility in year-to-year tax revenues.

 There is, however, one top ranking of which we shouldn’t be proud: South Dakota has the second highest juvenile commitment rate in the nation. This high rate of commitment is not explained by a higher rate of juvenile arrests for violent crime. In fact, South Dakota’s juvenile violent crime arrest rate is just one-third of the national average.

 Seven of every 10 youth committed to the Department of Corrections in 2013 were committed for misdemeanor offenses, probation violations and “status offenses” –violations which, if committed as an adult, would not even be considered crimes.

 Research shows that for many youth, commitment to residential placement fails to produce better outcomes than alternative sanctions. Commitment to residential placement also costs much more and can actually increase reoffending in certain circumstances.

 Two years ago, we reformed our adult corrections system to improve public safety, hold offenders more accountable and control costs. Though it’s only been a short time since those reforms took effect, early results are positive. The percentage of offenders who have successfully completed parole has increased, hundreds of probationers have earned early termination of their supervision by complying with the rules and the prison population is slightly less than what was projected.

 Because the criminal justice reforms of 2013 are showing positive early indications, I, along with a number of stakeholders across the state, wanted to offer similar reforms for the juvenile justice system. 

 This legislative session, I’m proposing that we reserve commitments to the Department of Corrections for only youth who commit the most serious offenses and pose a risk to the public. I’m also proposing that we develop an array of effective interventions for youth offenders, including community-based programs to address substance abuse, antisocial tendencies and challenges within the family. These types of programs would allow youth to get the help they need without being removed from their homes. They would also help judges as they perform the difficult task of weighing how best to set youth on a better path. 

 We have a choice to make. We can continue to place juveniles in expensive state-funded facilities that, for many, are less effective at reducing delinquency, or we can invest in proven interventions and treatment programs that keep our youth close to home and connected to their communities.

 Though it would be easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing, that would be a disservice to South Dakota – to the taxpayers who fund the correctional system and to the young offenders who need to be rehabilitated.

 I’m hopeful that lawmakers will continue to be engaged on this issue and that they will come to agree that now is the time to fix this problem.  As we’ve proven in the past, we can do great things when we work together.