PIERRE — South Dakota’s first special drug and alcohol courts have successfully rehabilitated offenders and should be expanded to new cities as part of the state’s wide-ranging effort to cut prison costs by overhauling the criminal justice system, South Dakota Supreme Chief Justice David Gilbertson said Wednesday.
About half those sent to prison for drug crimes are arrested for new drug offenses within a few years of being released, but more than 80 percent of those who have completed intensive treatment in drug and alcohol courts have not committed new offenses, Gilbertson said in his annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the South Dakota House and Senate.
“These are courts for addicts. Drug pushers, along with violent criminals, are not, and will not, be placed in an alcohol or drug court program. For the safety of the public, they will be placed in the penitentiary,” the chief justice said.
Gilbertson also said court officials are working with other state agencies and Veterans Affairs to start treatment outside jail or prison for military veterans who get into trouble because of addictions or mental health problems.
In addition, the judicial system continues to work on upgrading its interpreter services for people who end up in court but do not speak or read English well, he said.
House Republican Leader David Lust said the special courts make sense because so many crimes are connected to the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
“It’s no surprise in trying to address our criminal justice system and reform it that alcohol and drug courts come to the fore,” said Lust, a lawyer from Rapid City.
Gilbertson spoke to lawmakers a day after Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked the Legislature to approve a sweeping proposal to cut prison costs by treating more of those convicted of nonviolent crimes outside prison walls. A panel appointed by Daugaard, Gilbertson and legislative leaders recommended expanding drug and alcohol courts, changing some sentencing laws, putting more nonviolent offenders on probation and allowing released inmates to get off parole earlier if they behave themselves.
The panel’s report said South Dakota’s adult prison population has grown from fewer than 550 inmates in 1977 to more than 3,600 now. Unless changes are made, the state will gain another 900 adult inmates in the next decade, requiring construction of a new men’s prison and new women’s prison, the report said.
Gilbertson said South Dakota was the only state without a drug court until one was started in the northern Black Hills more than five years ago. That first program was expanded to a larger area in western South Dakota, and drug and alcohol courts were later added in Pierre and Sioux Falls. With money provided by the Legislature, a new alcohol court was opened last year in Aberdeen and a new drug court started last week in Yankton.
With 41 graduates and 62 current participants in drug and alcohol courts, the programs have treated 103 people who otherwise would have gone to prison, Gilbertson said. Of the 41 people who had successfully completed treatment in drug and alcohol courts as of July, five later committed new felonies and three now face felony charges, he said.
“We now have sufficient experience with these types of programs to consider the possibility of establishing them in every city in South Dakota that wants them and is large enough to provide support services, such as counseling, to make the local program successful,” Gilbertson said.
The establishment of more drug and alcohol courts should help the state avoid building more prisons while giving offenders a chance to stay out of prison, overcome their addictions and support their families, he said.
“I was raised by a minister and a nurse. What would have been my fate if I had instead been raised by two meth addicts who could not shake that addiction? The fate of present and future South Dakotans hangs in the balance under the same dynamic,” Gilbertson said.
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