REPORT: South Dakota's obsession with incarceration

A recent report highlights the need for reform in our state. Will policymakers listen?

According to a report recently published by The Sentencing Project, South Dakota is locking up Black adults at a rate higher than the national average.

One in 60 Black South Dakotans is in prison, the report found. Black people make up just 2 percent of the state’s population, but comprise 8 percent of the South Dakota prison population. The report, released this month, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to calculate states’ rates of imprisoning white residents and people of color. 

Despite widespread agreement that more needs to be done to achieve racial equity in the criminal legal system, the statistics are deeply troubling.

This report bolsters the case for a bold, forward-looking reform agenda that will prioritize people, not prisons, in a racially just way – and that’s going to require leadership and commitment from our legislators, police, district attorneys, judges, and people in each part of the system.

Though Native Americans weren’t included in The Sentencing Project’s report, the disparities between Indigenous South Dakotans and whites is even greater. Native Americans make up just 9 percent of the state’s total adult population, but more than 35 percent of the prison population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

Urgent work remains for advocates, policymakers and communities across the state to focus on efforts like policing and prosecutorial reform that are specific to combating these disparities.