South Dakota's high prison population has garnered considerable discussion lately, but the problem's not new, said David Gilbertson, chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Since the 1930s, South Dakota's prison numbers have been about double those of North Dakota, a state with roughly the same population and demographics, Gilbertson said. But there's no simple reason to explain why, he said.
"There's no definitive answer," he said. "Maybe a lot of little ones, but that's about it."
The reasons, Gilbertson said, might include:
• Generally, South Dakota has stronger criminal statutes and longer potential maximum sentences than other states.
South Dakota has the strongest maximum sentence for manslaughter — up to life in prison — in the nation, Gilbertson said.
• There are also minimum prison terms for some sex and drug offenses.
In some cases, the mandatory minimum sentences don't seem appropriate, but judges have to follow the laws put in place by the Legislature, said Judge Jack Von Wald, who presides over the Aberdeen-based 5th Judicial Circuit.
• South Dakota arrests a fair number of people running drugs through the state on Interstate 90.
• Neighboring states all have alternate sentencing options for alcohol and drug addiction-related offenses. Sobriety courts are prominent in those states.
Because of South Dakota's increasing prison population — the average number of people in prison on a day in 2002 was 2,781; this year, it's 3,546 — state and judicial officials are seeking ways to reduce it. And, Gilbertson said, it won't be surprising if the group charged with finding potential solutions suggests ramping up the state's sobriety court program.
With a driving while under the influence sobriety court that started in Brown County in July, South Dakota now has four sobriety courts. Two focus on alcohol, two on drugs.
Chemical dependency issues are a big reason why prison numbers have increased, Von Wald said. Many drug and alcohol offenders are sentenced to prison. And sometimes those addiction issues, if left untreated, lead to more serious offenses, he said.
Addictions lead to two types of "revolving doors," Gilbertson said. One is that people who aren't given the skills to handle their addictions tend to return to court regularly. And, he said, those problems, if left unchecked, can continue from one generation to the next, resulting in a family "revolving door" problem.
The state needs to find a way to handle addiction-related criminal cases, Von Wald said, and more drug and alcohol courts could help alleviate some of the pressure at the state's prisons.
Sobriety courts are for people who plead guilty to felony addiction-related offenses. They involve intense supervision and in-patient treatment. The program lasts a minimum of a year and is aimed at giving participants the skills to remain sober for the rest of their lives.
If sobriety court participants flunk out, they face a likely prison term. Those who finish don't get the infraction removed from their criminal record, but authorities hope those people finish with the tools to resist the temptations that haunt addicts. Sobriety courts are not for violent offenders or drug dealers, Gilbertson said. Those people are and will continue to be sent to prison, he said.
In Minnesota, the number of sobriety courts has increased considerably — from fewer than 10 to 40 — since 2005 or so, said Jim Eberspacker of the state court administrator's office. The first one, started in the Twin Cities in 1996, focused on drug addictions, he said.
Folks who participate in drug courts in Minnesota ultimately have fewer problems than those who are sent to prison, he said.
The sobriety courts not only yield better results, but they save money, Eberspacker said. The state spends $3,100 less per offender on people who go through sobriety courts than on those sentenced to prison, he said.