By On February 6th, 2014

South Dakota Chief Justice Champions Court Reform of Drug, Alcohol and Veteran Cases with Results

SouthDakotaPostcardWho says you can’t overhaul a court system statewide, reduce prison costs, with positive outcomes?  You would be hard pressed to convince South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson.   In his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the South Dakota Legislature, Chief Justice Gilbertson reported that the state court system is making progress in carrying out its role in an extensive overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system. Two of the focal points of their plan were statewide expansion of courts for drug and alcohol offenders and a new program for helping military veterans charged with misdemeanors. The requested changes approved last year are centered on managing more offenders through intervention and community programs instead of putting them in prison.

The foundations for these changes seem to be based on creating a strong probation and parole system backed by community support.  Through piloting a program of channeling non-violent offenders through intensive probation and parole, as well as utilizing other community services, they can reduce costs from the $63 a day prison expense to $3 a day. In 2010, less than 350 (7%) of the 4,824 felons on probation had to be diverted to prison. In 2013, only 4.4% (259) of the 5,892 felons on parole were sent on to the prison system.  In regard to the handling of veterans with legal issues, pilot courts have the ability to divert offenders into rehabilitation programs run by the Department of Veteran Affairs, and criminal charges can be dismissed after veterans complete those programs.

The model Chief Justice Gilbertson is engineering is a great start.  Based on recent reports from other systems though (most recently the Tulsa County Jail in Oklahoma), another concern is the rising percentages of offenders with mental health issues. Drug and alcohol offenders and Veterans facing legal issues are among those with the greatest need for mental health services.  More understanding of how South Dakota’s approach manages the mental health issues that are significant to the scope of these types of offenders would be of great value to other jurisdictions seeking ways to reform their systems.

Click here to read more about this successful program in South Dakota.


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