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Greg Sattizahn, state court administrator, left, and Denny Kaemingk, department of corrections secretary, panel a discussion of Senate Bill 70 and the impact it will have on the unified judicial system and department of corrections in South Dakota during the 2014 South Dakota Correction Association’s Spring Conference Thursday in Huron. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

State embraces new approach to crime, punishment

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HURON -- When sweeping reforms to South Dakota's criminal justice system were passed last year, Denny Kaemingk knew the task ahead was a daunting one.

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Kaemingk, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, has helped oversee the implementation of the vast reforms contained in Senate Bill 70, which became law last year.

"We had a lot of staff members asking how we were going to be able to get this done," Kaemingk said. "Now, I just see the energy. It has had such a positive impact on employees trying to figure it out."

Kaemingk and State Court Administrator Greg Sattizahn spoke about the reforms at the South Dakota Corrections Association's Spring Conference on Wednesday. The three-day event was held at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center in Huron. About 50 people attended the event on Wednesday.

Sattizahn said the reforms, which are already being implemented, have forced those who work in the state's criminal justice system to take a more data-driven approach to their work.

"It provided a lot of changes in our office as to how we think about problems," he said.

All of the reforms in Senate Bill 70 are aimed at reducing the soaring number of inmates in the state's prisons by giving more nonviolent offenders the chance to be treated with intensive probation, parole and other programs instead of prison.

"The idea is to be smart on crime and punish the people that need to be punished," Sattizahn said.

The number of inmates in the state's prisons increased from 2,954 in 2003 to 3,676 in 2013, a 24 percent increase. In that same time, the state Department of Correction's budget has increased by 45 percent, from about $70.6 million in 2003 to $102.4 million in 2013.

Kaemingk became the department's secretary in 2011 and said he quickly realized if the state's prison population continued to swell, the state would be forced to either expand its current prisons or build a new one.

The problem was most obvious at the South Dakota Women's Prison in Pierre, Kaemingk said.

"Our numbers were getting to the point where they were getting scary," he said.

South Dakota has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the Midwest, according to statistics presented at Wednesday's event.

Kaemingk and Sattizahn both said the reason for the state's high incarceration rate was due to its high rate of recidivism -- the number of inmates who are released, but re-offend and end up back in prison.

Right now, nearly 44 percent of those people released from the state's prison are back behind bars within three years, Kaemingk said.

As the new reforms are implemented, Kaemingk said the focus will shift from not only keeping inmates out of the public while they're in prison, but also preparing those inmates for release.

"The public safety we're trying to deliver is for today, but it's also for tomorrow," he said.

Kaemingk said he hopes the reforms will, at the very least, halt the growth in the state's prison population.

"I hope our population goes down and I hope our budget is able to be reduced but, realistically, if we can just stop the growth, that's my goal," he said.

If the state's prison population does decline, Sattizahn said the number of people on probation or parole will almost certainly go up.

"The key is taking on those new numbers without increasing the number of people who aren't successful on probation and wind up going back to the penitentiary," he said.

To do that, Sattizahn said, the state will use programs included in Senate Bill 70 to provide those people on supervision with incentives to stay out of trouble.

A program that allows offenders to shorten the length of their parole with good behavior began in July, and at least 2,795 parolees have already earned a combined total of 518,251 days -- more than 1,400 years -- off their parole.

A similar program for people on probation, which began in January, has had similar results, as at least 5,586 probationers have earned 167,040 days, or more than 450 years, off their parole.

"To me, I think that provides one of the best incentives we can give right now," Sattizahn said.

Sex offenders and those enrolled in drug court are not eligible for that incentive program.

As a result of that incentive program, the workload for the state's parole agents has already been reduced by about 200 cases, which Sattizahn said will allow them to focus more on high-risk offenders.

Another program included in the reforms is aimed at creating supervision programs for tribal communities, which Kaemingk said will be useful in dealing with American Indian inmates who return to the state's reservations after being released from prison.

"Understanding that many of these individuals want to go home, we need to work with these tribes in order to deal with this," he said.

Among inmates in the state's prisons, Kaemingk said, 28 percent of males and 46 percent of the females are American Indian.

A pilot program will be started in the near future with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, Kaemingk said, and plans are in place to expand it to other tribes.

"I believe we're starting something pretty special here," he said.

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