South Dakota Governor Tells How He Enacted Prison Reforms, Saved Money


After South Dakota's imprisonment rate rose faster than the national average between 2001 and 2011, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard and his legislative allies set out to change that. The effort resulted in the Public Safety Improvement Act of 2013 and this year's Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act. Stateline says the 2013 law helped avoid building two new prisons, which would have cost $224 million. This year's measure is expected to cut the number of juveniles placed in detention by half over five years, saving $32 million. Daugaard tells Stateline that the incarceration state was so high because “we were locking up nonviolent offenders at an increasing rate. We saw 80 percent of our admissions were for nonviolent offenses.” He said, “We want to incarcerate people we are afraid of, violent people or career criminals, not people we are just angry with. There are more effective and less expensive ways to hold drug offenders accountable without putting them in an expensive prison that does nothing to address their underlying addiction.”

To get reforms passed, Daugaard says, “Everyone started with an understanding of what the real facts are: What are the drivers of incarceration? What can we learn from other states? We had sheriffs, judges, legislators, the chief justice involved in the process. Opponents that could be bombastic became our supporters, our endorsers.” He said prosecutors “were concerned about being soft on crime and being perceived as soft on crime. We had to persuade them that we were being smart on crime. Even as we were reducing the penalties for low-level offenders, we were increasing the penalties for more egregious offenders. I think that balanced it for them.”

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