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Criminal Justice Reform Long Overdue

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The South Dakota Senate has overwhelmingly approved a bill aimed at creating alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. The language of the bill would establish new courts designed specifically for alcohol and minor drug offenses.

The move was prompted by the concern that current trends in incarceration would require the state to build two new prisons in the next decade. The bill was proposed by Governor Daugaard and has broad bipartisan support as it moves to the House.

Advocates for drug policy reform have long called for changes in how nonviolent offenders, usually with reference to those arrested for simple possession of marijuana, are treated in the criminal justice system. Decades of “cracking down” and “getting tough on crime” have done little to reduce drug use, but have resulted in the US having the world’s highest incarceration rate.

We are not just barely number one; the competition isn’t even close. We lock people up at a clip more than 4 times higher than silver medal winning Russia. If this seems absurd, it is because it is.

A 2011 study revealed that South Dakota had the highest growth in recidivism rates in the nation. While each case is different, rather than being scared straight, there is ample anecdotal evidence of originally nonviolent offenders learning to become career criminals by being exposed to the gang heavy environment of the prison population. Upon release from prison these individuals find little waiting for them on the outside other than a life of crime.

Breaking this cycle before it starts by keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison may not be a cure all, but it seems like a better prospect than a status quo that leaves untreated addicts in the welcoming hands of prison gangs.

It is unfortunate that budget concerns, rather than a desire to see treatment, not punishment, for drug and alcohol addicts, is the driving force behind this bill; but better late than never.

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