More at-risk South Dakota youth successfully completed diversion programs in 2019 than in any other year since juvenile justice reforms went into effect, according to a report issued last week.

The report is the fourth issued since the formation of the South Dakota Juvenile Justice Oversight Council in 2015, when the state passed the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, which was aimed at finding community-based alternatives to Department of Corrections supervision for minors.

“We’ve really seen a lot of utilization of our diversion programming,” Greg Sattizahn, chairman of the oversight council and state court administrator for the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, told The Daily Republic on Friday. “That means that those kids that first have contact with the criminal justice system, we’re connecting them to services, we’re keeping them out of creating a formal court record and we’re seeing some good results with that.”

Kids who have used alcohol or drugs, have truancy issues, have damaged property or have committed other low-level offenses are among those eligible for diversion programs in South Dakota. The programs have a variety of treatment options at their disposal, depending on location, and may recommend evidence-based services such as functional family therapy, aggression replacement training, moral reconation therapy or treatments for substance use disorders.

While the number of South Dakota juveniles who participated in a diversion program was about the same in 2019 as in 2018 — 1,939 compared to 1,930 — the number who successfully completed their program increased from 77 percent to nearly 84 percent and has been on the rise for the four years the oversight council has been collecting data.

Davison County’s diversion program has gotten up and running in recent months under the direction of Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) coordinator Katie Buschbach. Currently, nine juveniles are in the program, as well as several young adults.

Buschbach said after a child is recommended for diversion, she works with Davison County Deputy State’s Attorney Alicia Odlund to determine if they are eligible.

“If it’s a first-time offense, typically we’re going to try to work with that kid on keeping them out of the court system,” Buschbach said.

Buschbach then does an assessment with the child and their family in order to ascertain the ways in which they might need assistance. Next, they go through 3rd Millennium, an online program that offers behavioral education in a variety of areas, before being placed in any necessary community services.

“Every county is very different in their approach, just because each community is so different,” Buschbach said. “Right now, the approach that we’re taking is mostly online. And that way, it really helps the kids be able to be mobile. They don’t have to be connected to me. They don’t have to come and check in all the time. They can do their program online at their own pace, and that seems to really work for our kids, just because a lot of our kids are active in pro-social activities, or they’re farm kids or they live out of town.”

While juveniles are currently only able to access services in-person in some of the state’s more populous counties, most services offered through UJS and diversion programs are now accessible in all counties via Telehealth.

Sattizahn said using Telehealth has been beneficial for juvenile justice both because younger people are typically comfortable with technology and because it helps to address the challenge of providing services to kids in rural areas who previously may have had to leave their communities to access them.

“One of our largest challenges was just the geography of our state … and Telehealth has been a way to overcome some of that distance,” Sattizahn said. “When you had those judges, law enforcement and probation (officers) that were dealing with youth in a very rural area, they couldn’t necessarily bring the services to that area, so by default, you would bring the kid to the services, which would mean you’re going from Gettysburg to Rapid City, or you’re going from Faulkton to Sioux Falls.”

In 2020, Sattizahn said the council plans mainly to revise the services that have been rolled out over the last several years, but also to introduce two pieces of legislation. One would keep the council in place for another three years — its current term is set to expire in September — and the other would recommend giving judges the option to send juveniles who present a risk to public safety to be remanded into DOC custody.

“Right now, the criteria wouldn’t allow them to go to the Department of Corrections,” Sattizahn said. “In general terms, it’s a pretty small group of kids, but it’s also a group of kids that can be very, I think, damaging in a community. We want to make sure that we have the option for the judges, at least, to respond to some of those.”

Buschbach said she hopes to continue to expand juvenile justice in Davison County by expanding the program past just diversion. She hopes to eventually start a reporting center where kids could go to learn life skills from role models or simply to have somewhere stable to go after school.

“That takes a long time. That’s a really big process,” Buschbach said. “But those are some of those goals that we have: to get an evening reporting center and conditional release and things like that, that we’ll team up with people in the community to try to get provided for our youth.”