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OPINION: For those breaking laws,a turn of state's direction

PIERRE--The Chief did it again the other day. David Gilbertson announced on Tuesday the women and men who comprise his new task force on community justice and mental illness early intervention. Gilbertson is the chief justice of the South Dakota ...

1359515+Bob Mercer.jpg

PIERRE-The Chief did it again the other day.

David Gilbertson announced on Tuesday the women and men who comprise his new task force on community justice and mental illness early intervention.

Gilbertson is the chief justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court. He is the task force's chairman. Jim Seward, legal counsel for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, is vice chairman.

The names of Gilbertson and Seward together signal two things.

This topic is important-and there will be results.

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Four years ago, Seward chaired the governor's work group on prison population. The last thing the governor wanted was building more cells.

The effort brought together state court officials, prosecutors, defense lawyers and others involved at the everyday level dealing out justice.

Their product was Senate Bill 70 in the 2013 legislative session. The measure, known as the Public Safety Improvement Act, turned South Dakota's corrections and courts system onto a different path.

SB 70 emphasized community services, shorter sentences initially and the full brunt of the system for those who blew their opportunities.

The Legislature's two Republican majority leaders at the time were Sen. Russ Olson, of Wentworth, and Rep. David Lust, of Rapid City. The 33 pages of reforms won approval in the Senate 31-2 and in the House of Representatives 63-7.

One feature of the 2013 legislation required an oversight council to keep the reforms on track and to measure results. Seward chairs the oversight panel, whose members recently issued their report on the first full year of the changes.

In 2014 the governor and the chief justice decided to proceed on a similar project regarding juvenile justice.

Sending a teenager to a state, local or private facility runs nearly $60,000 per year on average in South Dakota.

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But in many of the 66 counties, there weren't community services to help those youths.

Again, the direction turned. The governor recommended spending more money up front on services and hoping in the long run to pay for the changes by sending fewer youths to out-of-home facilities.

The Legislature adopted the 33 pages of juvenile justice reforms in SB 73 without a single change last winter, 35-0 in the Senate and 63-7 in the House.

It, too, has an oversight council, chaired by the courts' top administrator, Greg Sattizahn, with Seward as vice chairman.

Meanwhile the chief justice used his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature last January to call, again, for a study of elder abuse in South Dakota.

This time, legislators agreed-and became more agreeable when the chief justice offered $15,000 from the budget of the state's Unified Judicial System.

The elder abuse task force's report will be considered in the 2016 legislative session that starts Jan. 12.

Last autumn, news reports surfaced about jails housing mentally ill people. The chief justice established the task force that will make recommendations for the 2017 session.

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It might take 10 or 20 years to know what's worked. But we know, clearly, all three branches of our state government want South Dakota's justice system to work better, and at a price taxpayers can better afford.

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