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Inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary playing a game of basketball in Sioux Falls on Nov. 13. A revamped state probation system that took effect Jan. 1 aims to prevent offenders from violating probation and ending up in prison. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)
Inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary playing a game of basketball in Sioux Falls on Nov. 13. A revamped state probation system that took effect Jan. 1 aims to prevent offenders from violating probation and ending up in prison. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

New year brings changes in SD probation system

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Chet Brokaw

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PIERRE (AP) — South Dakota is making big changes in the way it handles offenders placed on probation, as part of an extensive overhaul of the state's criminal justice system designed to avoid construction of new prisons.

Most offenders released on probation will be able to reduce their sentences through good behavior. Those who violate the terms of their probation will face penalties tied to the severity of their transgressions.

The probation changes are part of a law passed in 2013 by the South Dakota Legislature that aims to handle more nonviolent offenders through intervention and programs instead of incarceration. Key provisions are designed to reduce parole violations and new crimes.

Most of the new law took effect July 1, but many of the changes dealing with the court system were delayed until Jan. 1 to give the South Dakota Supreme Court time to pass new rules dealing with probation.

Similar provisions have been in place since July for inmates released on parole, and the Department of Corrections reported that about three-quarters of the parolees earned time off their sentences in the first four months.

Most offenders placed on probation will be able to earn 30 days off their sentences for each month they comply with the terms of their releases. Those in drug courts or on probation for sex offenses cannot earn sentence reductions. Court services officers also can use detailed guidelines to penalize probation violators immediately without getting a judge involved.

The changes will encourage people on probation to behave so court officials can devote more time to probationers with a higher risk of getting into trouble, state court administrator Greg Sattizahn said.

"It allows us to dedicate those resources toward people that maybe are struggling or not doing as well and need more intensive supervision," Sattizahn said.

Court service officers supervised more than 7,600 adults on probation last year, Sattizahn said. Officials do not yet have an estimate of how much they expect the changes might reduce the number on probation, he said.

Two pilot programs also are being started to deal with drug offenders. Similar to an existing program for those with alcohol problems, the pilot programs in Walworth and Minnehaha counties will provide frequent testing to make sure offenders are not using drugs.

Jim Seward, who is overseeing the criminal justice overhaul as Gov. Dennis Daugaard's staff lawyer, said state agencies have been working hard to implement the changes.

"Generally, it's going very, very well," Seward said.

South Dakota had to change the way it handles nonviolent offenders because the state was locking them up at too high a rate, Seward said. In 2012, 81 percent of those admitted to prison were nonviolent offenders, he said.

The changes in probation and parole, new programs for drug and alcohol offenders and other innovations will treat those nonviolent offenders in communities instead of prison, Seward said.

"We could hold people more accountable where they are. They can work, raise their own families, and we can improve public safety," Seward said.

When the Legislature passed the overhaul, officials said that without the changes the state was on track to spend an estimated $212 million to build and operate a new men's prison and a new women's prison in the next decade. The new programs will cost an estimated $51 million, they said.

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