SPRINGFIELD — A committee dedicated to reforming South Dakota’s criminal justice system will learn information this week that could help prevent the building of two prisons in the next decade.
The South Dakota Corrections Commission learned more about the effort during Monday’s meeting at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield. Several commission members also serve on the Criminal Justice Initiative Work Group, which holds its next meeting Thursday.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, along with Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson and legislative leaders, announced the work group last month. The group has been charged with making recommendations in time for the 2013 Legislature starting in January.
At Monday’s meeting in Springfield, Corrections Commission members said action must be taken to deal with skyrocketing inmate numbers.
If nothing is done, South Dakota will begin running out of prison space, said State Sen. Craig Tieszen (R-Rapid City).
“Five years from now, we’ll be needing a new women’s prison. Ten years from now, we’ll need a new men’s prison,” he said. “If that’s the direction we’re going, we need to make plans and start appropriating money.”
However, much of Monday’s discussion focused on ways of stemming the prison population rather than building more facilities.
“We need to be smarter on crime, rather than just tougher on crime,” said Tieszen, the Corrections Commission chairman.
The challenge remains large, given the numbers. The state currently spends $102 million on its corrections budget annually, compared to $19 million in 1980. While their crime rates are similar, South Dakota’s incarceration rate is higher than that of neighboring states and is about double the rates of North Dakota and Minnesota.
The South Dakota prison population has grown by more than 500 percent since 1980, from about 600 inmates then to more than 3,600 today. If the state does not contain that growth, it is estimated the prison population will exceed 4,500 inmates by 2022, at a cost of more than $224 million to taxpayers.
Mike Durfee State Prison, which hosted Monday’s meeting, has seen a similar spike during the last three decades, Warden Bob Dooley told the Press & Dakotan. “We opened with 250 inmates in December 1984, and as of today, we’re at 1,236,” he said, with another 296 inmates at the Yankton Trusty Unit.
The Springfield prison employs the equivalent of 188 full-time employees, Dooley said. The day shifts use about 60 staff members, including 27 corrections officers, he said. The staffing drops to about 15 at night, when inmates are kept in their rooms, he said.
As part of the process for compiling reforms, the Pew Center for the States has worked with the work group and state officials on compiling statistics on South Dakota’s corrections system. The Pew Center will present its data at Thursday’s work group meeting, followed by discussion on possible action.
Tieszen anticipates a number of area will be addressed, including South Dakota’s treatment of drug offenses, non-violent offenders and the high number of repeat offenders who return to prison shortly after their release. The work group is also looking at the imprisonment rate for women and Native Americans, he said.
“The research is important so we don’t just operate off our gut feelings,” he said.
State Rep. Larry Lucas (D-Mission), the Corrections Commission vice chairman, said he wants to see methods for preventing imprisonment in the first place and for providing inmates with the skills and services needed to remain out of prison.
State Sen. Jim Bradford (D-Pine Ridge) expressed concern about the high number of Native Americans in the state’s prison system.
“The reservation life we live is so much different. You can’t fathom it, unless you’re in our situation,” he said. “If (Native Americans) are moving from a rural area into Rapid City or Sioux Falls, they are moving into a totally different atmosphere.”
“I’m not here to seek sympathy for them. I’m here to seek help,” he added.
Circuit Judge John Brown, a Corrections Commission member, explained his circuit’s program with high intensity supervision for those with drunk-driving convictions that has helped reduce prison numbers.
At the close of Monday’s meeting, Tieszen told Dooley that the work group isn’t meant to criticize prison officials.
“We hope the (Department of Corrections) doesn’t see this as a threatening move. It’s not the tenor of the work group,” the legislator said.
Dooley said he welcomed the work group’s findings. He added that he enjoyed that afternoon’s opportunity to give Corrections Commission members a tour of the prison and its programs, which drew praise from the committee members during Monday’s meeting.
“We are open to suggestions,” the warden said. “We are always looking for ways to do things better.”
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf