Legislators support change in correctionsGov. Dennis Daugaard, state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders have all endorsed sweeping changes in how South Dakota incarcerates people convicted of crimes.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
South Dakota’s corrections system needs change and reform, Mitchell’s three legislators agreed Saturday during the first cracker barrel of the 2013 legislative session.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders have all endorsed sweeping changes in how South Dakota incarcerates people convicted of crimes.
The state’s prison population has increased to more than 3,500 inmates, a 500 percent increase since 1980. Another 7,000 people are on probation and 2,400 on parole, according to statistics from the state Department of Corrections.
“This is not about being hard or soft on crime,” Daugaard said last year when a task force was formed to study the issue. “This is about being smart on crime.”
States that lower prison population have seen a decrease in crime, Daugaard said. The legislators said Saturday morning they agreed with that approach.
State Rep. Lance Carson, one of three Mitchell Republicans who represent District 20, said it would cost about $112 million over five to 10 years to build a new prison to house the burgeoning inmate population. There are better ways to spend that money, Carson said.
Each prisoner costs about $25,000 per year, he said, except for those in special lockdown situations, where the cost tops $100,000 per inmate.
The problem is tied to substance abuse, Carson said.
“We’re going to have to develop a tremendous methamphetamine program,” he said.
Many male inmates are users of the drug and more than 50 percent of women in the corrections system have used or are addicted to meth, Carson said. Locking them up isn’t working.
“We put them out on probation and supervise them … we’ll have a better chance of keeping everyone,” he said. “Where you’re going to see a lot of savings is in the local community.”
By putting people on probation instead of in prison, they will be supporting their families, which will reduce public expenses, Carson said. They will also be required to work, which will lead to a more stable life for people trapped in a crime-prison cycle.
State Rep. Tona Rozum said the idea is not to release more dangerous people into the general population. She noted that 80 percent of South Dakota’s prison inmates are non-violent offenders.
South Dakota imprisons people at a far higher rate than surrounding states yet its crime rate is double that of those states.
“We know our system isn’t working. We’re missing something in this whole mix,” she said. “They need help, they need treatment. We’re not fixing the people going in. We need to do that if we want them to come out.”
State Sen. Mike Vehle said a line needs to be drawn between drug dealers and users. Dealers will be put behind bars, Vehle said, but users need to be set straight, both for themselves and for their families.
He said even the worst offenders deserve a chance to get on the right path.
“We’re going to put them away for a long time. But we’ve got to train them,” Vehle said. “We’re not going to put them away forever. We’ve got to work with that revolving door system.”
He said violent offenders who commit “the really tough crimes” will face longer prison sentences. But those who deserve another chance will get one and the odds are it will work far better than the current system.
On other issues:
• Former District 20 legislative candidate and conservative blogger Steve Sibson asked if South Dakota would work to “restore the Second Amendment” now as mass shootings have sparked a national debate over guns and increased security in schools.
Teachers should be able to take guns into schools, Sibson said. It’s their constitutional right, he added, and it would also increase safety.
Carson said there are “a lot of emotional factors” in the discussion. He said he favored a professional, trained, armed law enforcement officer in schools, along with perhaps metal detectors. Carson, who served in the military, said he did not support arming untrained people in schools.
Rozum, a former teacher who said she grew up around guns, said in a crisis situation she would probably “shoot my foot off.”
She said in Montana, some schools keep mace that is used as a bear repellent in desks. That’s a possible solution, Rozum said.
The answer is to come up with something that is “logical and reasonable” for public places including schools, she said.
Vehle said he favors a bill that would leave it up to each school district to decide how it wants to protect schools. Some larger communities, like Mitchell, have a school liaison officer, but smaller towns and school districts often don’t. He said the answer is to have someone who is trained and capable of taking a shot in a crowded, dangerous situation.
Vehle said banning guns is not the answer.
“It’s not going to do any good,” he said.
People can “create mayhem” with pipe bombs or other destructive devices. They can go online and learn how to build such weapons, he said.
Vehle said everyone has seen the bumper sticker “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns,” and it makes sense to him.
“There’s a lot of truth to that cliché,” he said.
He said if the country wanted to crack down on guns, it should have done so 150 years ago. Now, there are guns all over the nation; numerous studies claim there are 300 million guns in the nation.
Rozum said she would like to see increased efforts to determine if potential gun owners are mentally troubled and dangerous.
• Vehle, who is again sponsoring a bill to outlaw texting and driving, said the newly formed state Senate lost several members who supported such a ban in 2012.
However, a lot of opponents of the bill in the state House are also not back for this session. Vehle said he is determined to see the state law passed, but not because he wants more people in court.
“To me, it’s not about enforcement and tickets,” he said. “It’s about changing a culture.”
Vehle said some people who text and drive will squirm and try to explain why they do it when he asks them about texting behind the wheel. They have to realize that it’s extremely dangerous, he said.
Vehle said society has cracked down on drunken driving and has promoted seat belt use, and both efforts have worked. People now self-regulate on those issues, for the most part.
“Same thing is true with texting,” he said.
• Vehle said a bill to crack down on trucks carrying too much weight and damaging roads has been tabled. It came before the Senate Agriculture Committee, not the Senate Transportation Committee that he chairs and was introduced at the request of state officials.
In part, it would have used weigh tickets from elevators to see if trucks hauling grain were above weight limits. Some opponents viewed that as an invasion of their privacy and a “police state” action, Vehle said.
“We did not think it was ready for prime time,” he said of the bill. It would have “gone down in flames” because of strident opposition from some legislators, so it may be reintroduced in 2014 after it has been modified.
• The legislators were asked if the state should report how much is lost through lottery play each month, instead of the state just trumpeting the winners.
Rozum said she did not think so.
“Everybody who plays it is a loser,” she said, except for a few big winners.
Vehle said it was “private business” and people have a right to spend their money as they see fit.
Carson said it’s impossible to know how much individuals lose, since some lose $20 and others just a $1.
• Rozum said the House has passed a bill to make the 0.5 percent tourism sales tax permanent, and she said that is a good idea. Three-quarters of the dollars collected by the tax come from visitors to the state. It saves taxpayers almost $900 a year per person, she said.
“I believe the Tourism Department has proven itself,” Rozum said.
She also plans to introduce a “pretty significant” bill to exempt the salaries of coach es involved with kids’ programs.
• They were also asked to pick the winners of the NFL conference title games to played Sunday. Carson picked the 49ers and Ravens, while Vehle asked about point spreads but didn’t pick winners. Rozum said she didn’t even know who was playing.
The cracker barrel, sponsored by the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee, drew about 20 people, including Davison County Commission Chairman John Claggett, Aurora County Commissioner Oscar Thompson, and former Mitchell mayor Lou Sebert. Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke was the moderator.
The forum was held at the Mitchell Technical Institute’s Technology Center amphitheater. The second and final cracker barrel for the 2013 legislative session will be held at the same location at 10 a.m. Feb. 9.