More women are in prison than ever before.

Just 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the United States, but the U.S. accounts for more than 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women.

The statistics are just as staggering in South Dakota.

Here, we incarcerate women at a rate higher than the national average and higher than countries like Thailand and El Salvador, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The Women’s Prison in Pierre has a record number of inmates – up 50 percent from a decade ago and more than triple what it was 20 years ago, according to prison records. South Dakota is the third largest incarcerator of women per capita in the United States, behind only Oklahoma and Kentucky, according to The Sentencing Project.

Why are women being locked up? It’s not because they’re committing violent crimes. In fact, more than 75 percent of the women in South Dakota prisons are there for non-violent offenses; 64 percent are there for drug crimes.

These numbers are a direct reflection of our society’s destructive over-reliance on incarceration as a response to problems that are social and economic at their core. Instead of focusing on services to help women deal with the issues of livelihood and survival that landed them behind bars in the first place, we are incarcerating women for longer periods of time at a rate that is frankly disturbing.

None of that is making our communities any safer.

But it is doing irreparable damage to families in our state.

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. The cyclical nature of crime and its effects is particularly evident when it comes to women in prison. More than half the women we incarcerate, for example, are childhood abuse survivors.

That doesn’t mean women who commit crimes shouldn’t be held accountable. But frankly, we should be trying to solve the problems of crime instead of simply throwing women behind bars.

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.

We need 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 need a system that recognizes that alternatives to incarceration help families stay together and actually makes communities safer. We need a system that tackles failing systems like education, housing and unemployment.

But we can’t do it alone.

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 – particularly in the attorney general’s office.

South Dakota’s next attorney general has the opportunity to usher in a new era of smart-on-crime policies. On Election Day, we need to vote for an attorney general who vows to make our criminal justice system smarter and our communities safer – and has a clearly articulated plan to do it. 

Article originally posted on the Capital Journal.

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