High inmate numbers in South Dakota highlights need for criminal justice reform
Criminal justice reform is a hot-button topic across the nation, and a pillar in several 2020 presidential candidates' platforms.
And we're not immune from high inmate numbers here at home.
South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state, according to a recent report, and almost half of all arrests are related to drugs or alcohol.
A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative highlights the need for criminal justice reform in South Dakota, so what is Pennington County doing to reduce large inmate populations?
"The most common themes we hear is we need strong enforcement but we're doing that, we're arresting people in record numbers but what we're lacking in is prevention services and treatment services," said Kevin Thom, Sheriff of Pennington County.
That's why the diversion program within the MacArthur Foundation was created.
It looks at the cause of criminal behavior, and gives educational and job opportunities to help people change that behavior.
"When you call for criminal justice reform, I think what we really need to be looking at is all the things that lead up to the criminal justice system, if someone gets arrested for let's say possession of methamphetamine, what it means is that every other system that we have before the criminal justice system has already failed," said Mark Vargo, Pennington County State Attorney's Office.
Not only do racial disparities exist in jails nationwide but they're even higher here in South Dakota, as are our drug arrests.
"I think generally we do have a higher percentage number of drug arrests but there's a lot of variances in the data," Thom said.
When it comes to tackling drug addiction, the state's attorney said this.
"I know some of the things that don't work, I know it doesn't work to ignore it, and I know it doesn't work to simply put people in prison forever, somewhere the middle though is what we need to be doing," Vargo said.
Instead of a possible conviction, people who succeed in this diversion program can more easily integrate back into society.