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Felony filings hitting new highs

Violent and serious crimes are surging locally. In the first half of this year, from Jan. 1 to June 30, there were 215 felony charges filed in Davison County. That nearly matches the total charges from 2014, when there were 218 for the entire yea...

Violent and serious crimes are surging locally.

In the first half of this year, from Jan. 1 to June 30, there were 215 felony charges filed in Davison County. That nearly matches the total charges from 2014, when there were 218 for the entire year.

Tim Bjorkman, a judge who presides over felony circuit court hearings in Mitchell, said a report released in May shows felony convictions in the state increased 26 percent between 2013 and 2015, but the trend has been even more noticeable in Davison County.

"These numbers over the past couple years are quite a bit higher than those of any previous year during my (10-year) tenure on the bench," Bjorkman said.

While Bjorkman said convictions have increased, the numbers provided by South Dakota's Unified Judicial System detail how many felony charges have been filed, not how many charges have ultimately led to a conviction.

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Bjorkman was elected in November 2006 and began serving on the bench the following January. He said the May report was compiled to address the early impact of South Dakota's criminal justice reform law, known as the Public Safety Improvement Act or Senate Bill 70, passed in 2013.

Davison County, despite having the eighth highest population in the state, has jumped to the fourth on the list of South Dakota counties felony filings for 2016, following Codington, Minnehaha and Pennington counties. In 2014, Davison County ranked 10th, and it ranked eighth last year.

As filings increase, so do court hearings. To handle the influx, Bjorkman has begun to schedule additional sentencing dates outside the regularly scheduled circuit court sessions every other Tuesday, and these additional dates may become a permanent fixture on the schedule.

Because sentencing hearings are important for the parties involved and the community, Bjorkman said he tries to schedule no more than 10 hearings a day to give each case the "necessary attention."

"The sentencing hearing may well be the single most important hour in a person's life, for the defendant and for any victim. The judge's decision can be life-altering and often involves considering the risk of harm to the public that person poses if left in community," Bjorkman said.

Sentencings also require time and preparation before the hearing takes place. Bjorkman said the court and lawyers may read 50 to 100 pages of documentation before the hearing, which could include the defendant's life history, mental health and chemical dependency assessments, police reports, victim statements, letters of support and court services recommendations among others.

"While most of these documents are confidential and thus not accessible to the public, they often provide crucial information to help the judge arrive at a sentence that is just," Bjorkman said.

Epidemic

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When asked about the cause of the increase, Bjorkman mentioned drug use and singled out one drug in particular: highly-addictive methamphetamine.

"We are in the midst of a drug-addiction epidemic," Bjorkman said.

Statewide, felony charges are on the rise, with 6,495 filed in the first six months of this year, compared with 9,838 total in 2014, on pace for an increase of more than 25 percent.

Counties are seeing increases across the state, but few face a growth rate comparable to Davison County's. Other counties of note are Brookings with 176 in the first six months of 2016 and 194 in all of 2014; Butte with 107 and 127; Charles Mix with 107 and 122; Codington with 351 and 389; Gregory with 15 and 17; Hughes with 207 and 248; Lake with 65 and 75; Mellette with 14 and 18; Sanborn with 9 and 11; and Tripp with 42 and 52.

The 2016 numbers have already equaled the 2014 total in two counties - Hutchinson, 12, and McCook, 17 - and have topped the 2014 total in two more - Oglala Lakota and Sully, each with 6 in 2016 and 5 in 2014.

In 2015, felony filings throughout the state rose on average, totaling 11,308 by year's end, including in Davison County, which saw 304 filings all year.

As part of the Public Safety Improvement Act, lawmakers added a code to South Dakota law specifically for drug ingestion, in which an illegal substance is detected in a person's body through drug testing. Previously, this would have been recorded as possession, but many drug users are now charged with both possession and drug ingestion.

But Bjorkman attributed more than three-fourths of the statewide increase in felonies to drug-possession convictions, and all felony charges in a single case are heard in court on the same day, so a person charged facing two or more felony drug charges could appear in court for the same number of, or even fewer, days than a person with one charge.

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In fact, possession charges have recently skyrocketed in Davison County and make up the bulk of drug charges. From Jan. 1 to June 30, there have been 152 felony possession charges in Davison County and 66 ingestion charges, more than all of 2015 with 133 possession and 56 ingestion charges from January through December.

The numbers have increased over the past few years, with 87 possession and 57 ingestion in 2014 and 26 possession and 9 ingestion in 2013, the year the Public Safety Improvement Act took effect.

Prior to that, Davison County saw 53 possession charges in 2012, 51 in 2011 and 39 in 2010.

Repercussions

Bjorkman said drugs and other crimes take a heavy toll on children, who often become victims in abuse and neglect cases or turn to crime themselves and appear in juvenile court.

"While the public seldom hears about much of this because abuse and neglect and juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, the increased drug use, particularly meth use, is having a profound impact on families in the community," Bjorkman said.

However, Bjorkman sees the felony rise as part of a broader picture that has led the United States to incarcerate 2.3 million people, the most in the world and a higher percentage of the population than any other developed nation.

The trend remains true in South Dakota, which houses 3,700 inmates in its prisons, a nearly 750 percent increase from the 500 housed in 1980, Bjorkman said. More than two-thirds lack a high school diploma, and 93 percent of women and 85 percent of men in South Dakota prisons have been diagnosed with substance dependence or abuse, and a substantial number have a co-occurring mental disorder.

While Davison County's extra circuit court hearings may be here to stay, judges and attorneys are not the only ones who are affected.

"The increased felony numbers have had an impact all through the administration of justice," Bjorkman said. "It has placed added pressure on law enforcement, the jail, attorneys who represent the defendants, treatment providers across the area, and particularly probation officers who must supervise the increased numbers of offenders in the community."

Related Topics: CRIME
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