South Dakota Official Says Prison Reform is Working

Associated Press 

By Kevin Burbach

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A state law aimed at reducing South Dakota’s prison population and save money is working, South Dakota’s general counsel said Tuesday, saying that the number of offenders in drug courts has dramatically increased, leaving nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Jim Seward told the Government Operations and Audit Committee Tuesday that the Public Safety Improvement Act has tripled the number of nonviolent offenders in the state’s DUI and drug courts, increased the number of offenders on probation and decreased the number serving parole.

The legislation passed in 2013 brought about sweeping reforms that changed the state’s focus on nonviolent drug offenders and authorized the state Supreme Court to set up drug courts. Drug and DUI courts allow people with nonviolent drug offences to opt for treatment and supervision rather than time in prison.

The legislation also allows cooperative parolees to reduce their time on parole. If they’re compliant for a month, they can earn a month off the back end of their parole.

As of June 30, South Dakota had 3,624 inmates in its state prisons, an increase over the 3,576 from the year before, according to the Michael Winder, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

Seward said the increase is better than projections from Pew Charitable Trust, which the state had worked with when looking at prison reform.

In 2012, Pew estimated that South Dakota would have 3,760 prisoners by 2014 if it didn’t reform its practices and 3,636 if it did.

“We’re hopeful that’s a good sign,” Seward said.

In the program’s first year, Seward said the parole population is down 10 percent, which allows parole agents to focus on those more likely to reoffend. In 2012, the state’s prison population was made up of 25 percent of parole violators. That is down to 20 percent.

An oversight council created with the legislation and led by Seward is currently compiling its official report, which it will release in November. Seward updated lawmakers Tuesday for an annual report as required by the new law.