Tuesday, August 13, 2019

More Incarceration Hasn't Done Much Good. It's Time For South Dakotans To Think About Prison Reform

     We're kidding ourselves if we believe upping the number of inmates in our prisons will
We Spend More On Prisons
And This Is What We Get?
deter crime in South Dakota. 
In 1977, South Dakota housed about 500 inmates.  By 2017 that number increased to 3,900, a 750% jump, which is 30 times the rate of our population's growth.  Are we supposed to feel safer as a result?  Not particularly.  Citing data from the state Attorney General's office, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last year noted that "violent crime outpaced population growth" during the period 2008-2017, when South Dakota's population increased by 8% while violent crimes went up by 29%.  Arrests during the period 2009-2018 increased by 36%.  Reaching back to 2000, an FBI-compiled index composed of property and violent crimes per 100k population shows a gain of 3.4% through 2016.
     If our decades-long rush to imprison people is spurred by our urge to punish them, we've probably succeeded.  But if keeping our state safer is part of the plan, we've failed.  And an expensive failure it has been.  The National Institute of Corrections says that in 2017 South Dakotans spent $20 thousand a year per inmate in our state's prisons.  More prisoners + more money = more crime is an equation that makes no sense.  It's time to come up with a smarter approach.
     South Dakota's American Civil Liberties Union has just published a plan that should be considered.  Whatever your political inclinations and attitudes toward the ACLU may be, they should be set aside for a moment while you consider the practical, essentially non-partisan elements of this proposal, called "Blueprint For Smart Justice."  The blueprint's overall theme is to replace incarceration for many non-violent (including drug abusers) prisoners with locally developed counseling and assistance programs designed to change their behaviors.  The aim is to cut our prison population in half, which at $20k a prisoner will make for some sizable cost reductions that can either be passed on to taxpayers or spent on some productive ventures like infra-structure repair and development, education, enhanced internet access--you name it.  Given the fiscal and social failures of the status quo, I think the ACLU is on to something.  This approach needs to be given a chance.


  1. I agree that the ACLU is on the right track, insofar as this and every other state is concerned. My problem, for all my sins, is that I am unable to accept that the SD legislature, aka the GOP Caucus, would use any such savings to benefit either the tax payers or to repair and enhance the state's infrastructure. I suspicion it would be deposited in the 'rainy day fund' for the emergency that never seems to arise, or used to finance another state sponsored financial scandal.

  2. Funny .... the population imprisoned is never figured into the unemployment rate, Go figure.