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South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson gives his annual State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the South Dakota Legislature on Wednesday in Pierre. Gilbertson says the court system is doing its part to overhaul South Daktoa's criminal justice system. (AP Photo/Chet Brokaw)

SD chief justice says courts working on corrections reform

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By Chet Brokaw

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PIERRE (AP) — The court system is expanding existing programs and starting new ones to treat more nonviolent offenders outside of prison as part of the overhaul of South Dakota's criminal justice system, state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson said Wednesday.

In his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the South Dakota Legislature, Gilbertson said the court system is expanding an existing program for drug and alcohol offenders and working to start pilot programs in the Selby and Sioux Falls areas to reduce probation violations with drug offenders.

In addition, pilot courts to handle some military veterans charged with misdemeanors are being set up in Sioux Falls, Watertown and Hot Springs, Gilbertson said. Those courts can divert people into Veterans Affairs rehabilitation programs, and criminal charges can be dismissed after veterans complete those programs, he said.

The changes in the court system are part of a law passed a year ago that aims to cut prison costs by handling more nonviolent offenders through intensive probation, parole and other community programs. Key provisions of the programs are designed to reduce probation and parole violations that cause offenders to be sent to prison.

The court system is making big changes in its probation programs. Most offenders released on probation will be able to reduce their sentences through good behavior, and those who violate the terms of their probation will face penalties tied to the severity of their crimes.

Gilbertson said the probation program already has been successful in keeping offenders out of prison in recent years. Of 4,824 felons on probation in 2010, only 7 percent were sent to prison because of violations. Of the 5,892 on probation last year, only 4.4 percent were sent to prison for probation violations, he said.

While it costs $62 a day to keep an offender in prison, probation costs only about $3 a day, Gilbertson said.

"Our probation program provides a financial bargain and a program that works in appropriate cases," the chief justice said.

House Republican Leader David Lust said during past speeches Gilbertson has stressed the need for additional money to start more programs, so it's promising to hear that some of those have been a success.

"It's always good to find out some of the things we do work well and have an impact," said Lust, a Rapid City lawyer.

Gilbertson also said the court system is expanding the use of a two-way television system so lawyers, judges and people involved in court cases don't have to travel long distances for brief court hearings.

The chief justice also took time to recognize Justice John K. Konenkamp, who is retiring after 20 years on the state's highest court because he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Konenkamp played a key role in setting up a commission that examined equality of justice for Native Americans and promoting a program that is converting courts from paper documents to electronic filing, Gilbertson said.

"I have never met a more dedicated public servant who has spent countless hours undertaking his judicial duties. There is no area of the court which has not benefited from his efforts," Gilbertson said.

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