Today, more than 2.2 million people are in American jails and prisons. Nearly 4.7 million people are on probation or parole. And nearly 70 million people are living with a criminal record.
If you think those numbers are staggering, you’re right.
Instead of strengthening and expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and tackling failing systems like education, housing and unemployment, for too long politicians have pushed tough-on-crime policies that have led us to a mass incarceration crisis.
We’re seeing it here in South Dakota, too.
In our state, we haven’t turned away from the failed war on drugs with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences. We still put people in prison for years if they’re caught with drugs in their system.
In 1978, South Dakota housed about 500 inmates, according to historical data from the U.S. Department of Justice. But over the last 40 years, that number has swelled by more than 700 percent. The state’s prison numbers have grown at a rate 30 times that of the state’s overall population increase during the period. In fact, South Dakota imprisons more people per capita than every state it borders.
Behind these policies and statistics are people. And while there are examples of offenders who are a true threat to public safety and may require incarceration, many others are nonviolent offenders whose sentences do more harm than their underlying crimes. In fact, 75 percent of women incarcerated in South Dakota are nonviolent offenders, according to the South Dakota Department of Corrections.
For many low-risk, first-time offenders, a mandatory prison sentence can increase the likelihood of future crime and recidivism. It can unnecessarily tear a family apart, hurt future job opportunities and perpetuate poverty.
It’s time for a change.
South Dakota has the opportunity to shift away from tough-on-crime policies that have led to more arrests and increased costs and embrace a smart justice vision of our criminal justice system.
Smart justice is a way of addressing criminal justice issues that solves the problems of crime rather than simply locking people up. A smart justice approach doesn’t spend money on ineffective responses to crime. Instead, it clears clogged courtrooms and overcrowded jails and saves taxpayers money.
We’re calling for a system that emphasizes a public health approach to drug crime instead of a “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality that does nothing to help people overcome addiction. We’re calling for a system that recognizes that alternatives to incarceration help families stay together and makes communities safer. We’re calling for a system in which we confront the existing racial disparities and work to collect and publicize data on why that’s happening so we can create solutions.
We need visionary leaders who won’t rely on the way things have always been done and instead have a smart, innovative plan for how to move us forward.
As the election year campaigns for South Dakota’s governor, attorney general and a host of other positions continue to heat up, we urge candidates to embrace policies that are smart on crime. Our candidates for office need to explain their plans for South Dakota’s broken criminal justice system.
Voters need to ask candidates tough questions and make sure those they support can articulate a vision to make our criminal justice system better.
Most importantly we should all vote for candidates who vow to make our criminal justice system smarter and our communities safer.