As the South Dakota Legislature’s interim study on offenses regarding controlled substances gets underway today in Pierre, the ACLU of South Dakota recommends a smart justice approach to drug-related crimes.
As of March 2019, most people in South Dakota prisons – 33 percent – were serving time for a drug offense, up from 24 percent in 2014. While legislative reformer intended to curb the growth of drug offenders entering the prison system were passed in 2013, it hasn’t been enough. As of 2018, the prison population was only slightly smaller – just 281 fewer people – than the population projected if no reform had occurred.
Instead of using an enormous amount of taxpayer funds to prosecute and incarcerate drug users, the ACLU of South Dakota’s recently released Blueprint for Smart Justice report advocates for a smarter approach and supports the use of treatment and diversion whenever possible. South Dakota needs to invest in vital services such as addiction treatment and mental health resources.
“Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, we can’t incarcerate our way out of addiction,” said Libby Skarin, ACLU of South Dakota policy director. “It’s easy for officials to talk tough and introduce policies that add harsher penalties and more prison time. It’s much more difficult to recognize and act on the simple truth that our overemphasis on such enforcement deprives us of the chance to set up services that can eliminate crime in the first place, especially when it comes to crimes driven by addiction.”
Initiatives like drug courts have been successful in keeping offenders in communities while opening up avenues for them to get the treatment they need. Supporting and expanding alternatives to incarceration can solve the underlying causes of many addiction-related crimes and save taxpayer dollars.
Additionally, reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse.
“Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse,” Skarin said.
South Dakota is the only state that imposes a felony for ingestion of a controlled substance. Reducing the penalty for ingestion of a controlled substance from a felony to a misdemeanor would save the state an estimated $50 million dollars in department of corrections expenses over 10 years, according to a Legislative Research Council’s prison and jail cost estimate in 2018.
The ACLU’s Blueprint for Smart Justice report includes an overview of South Dakota’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long. It also offers a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and progress toward a 50 percent decarceration goal.
About the ACLU of South Dakota
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.
The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.