Alternatives to prison, jail must be sought

June 10, 2011 - Sioux Falls Argus Leader, by Marty Gallanter

Some heralded Governor Daugaard’s ten percent across the board budget cut as a bold move demanding an equal sacrifice from all areas of state government.  It may have been bold, but it was hardly innovative and did almost nothing to answer South Dakota ’s long-term financial worries.  The budget was adjusted and the state continues along with business as usual.

Maybe it’s time to start examining what works and what doesn’t in South Dakota and to begin adjusting budgets based on a program’s payoff to the taxpayers.  A great place to start would be the so-called correctional system.

At the state level, taxpayers spend almost $100 million to maintain the state prison system.  Add in what’s spent at the county level, in support of the criminal courts and for public defenders and the dollar figure becomes even more staggering.   Minnehaha County ’s 2011 Official Budget shows almost a million dollars for the judicial system and more than ten million for the Sheriff’s corrections budget.  While it’s true that Minnehaha is the most populous county, it would be fair to assume that many more millions are spent across the rest of the state.  And don’t forget to add in the cost of supporting families who lose a breadwinner to incarceration. Food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, foster care and welfare payments balloon as our prison and jail populations grow.

All of this would be fine if the taxpayers were getting value for their dollars but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  A study by the Pew Center on the States (article printed in the Argus Leader April 13) concluded that despite a huge increase in the correction’s budgets across the nation recidivism rates decreased only marginally.  The study did not even credit South Dakota with marginal success.  During the study period, South Dakota ’s recidivism rate increased by 35% topping out at slightly over 70% as final number.  That means simply that 7 out of every ten offenders will be back in the system within three years.  Wouldn’t one think that our governor might like to take a second look at a program that is operating at a 30% efficiency rate?

“The stubborn recidivism rates are a sign that the programs and policies designed to deter re-offenders are falling short.  Lawmakers should consider treatment-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders,” said Adam Gelb of the Center’s Public Safety Performance Project, according to the AP article.

Talk to almost anyone who works in South Dakota’s Correctional System and they will tell you – usually off the record – that a huge portion, maybe even a majority, of offenders are nonviolent and self-destructive rather than a danger to society.  I recently heard one judge threaten to send a repeat drug user to the state penitentiary not for the protection of the public but for the protection of the offender.

As a society shouldn’t we be offering our judges more productive choices?

Of course we need prisons and jails.  There are lots of folks who need to be locked away from society so that our streets and homes are safe.  But prison and jail are not a one-size fits all solution.  Corrections is one of the great growth industries both here and around the nation.  If it worked, if folks learned their lessons and stayed straight after release, the investment might be considered a good one.  Not the case.

Different states have tried different solutions.  Extensive community service programs, forced treatment and counseling, usually paid for the offender, have shown some promise.  The experiment with drug courts has shown promise.

I don’t have the answer.  I don’t think society has yet found the answer.  Some countries have taken radical paths out of pure frustration.  Portugal decriminalized all drugs a few years ago rather than continue to pay the price for drug connected crime.  Mexico is considering the same solution as their internal drug wars continue to grow the body count.  I doubt if the United States has the political will for such radical solutions.  However, what we are doing is not working and it’s not going to work any better by doing more of the same.

Now is the time for Governor Daugaard to join with the Legislature, the law enforcement community and the judiciary to find alternatives to wholesale incarceration.  We can save a lot of money and a whole lot of lives at the same time.

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