Judges have new sentencing tool to combat racism

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- Judges in Pennington County have a new way to fight racism. Now they can sentence some defendants to take a cultural sensitivity training class.

Rapid City municipal prosecutor Kinsley Groote had a case involving racial slurs. She asked a judge to sentence the defendant to sensitivity training.

The judge balked.

There were no guidelines for such a sentence. So Groote went to work and with the help of the MOA Ambassadors group and Seventh Circuit Court Judge Jane Pfeifle and the Cultural Impact Panel was born.

Today judges can sentence certain defendants to two one-hour classes on cultural diversity and regional history. It's brand new and only one defendant has been through the program so far.

"We want to get to the heart of the defendants because that's where the change is actually going to be," said Groote. "It's going to be when somebody chooses to learn about somebody else's background and can step into their shoes and is then able to change their opinions, attitudes, their hearts about everything, that's not going to be achieved through a fine and court costs."

And the architects of the new sentencing tool believe some ancillary effects will appear including more reporting of race based transgressions.

"I think that we have a large number of community members that do not report (racial incidents)," said Cultural Impact Panelist Mechelle Iron Cloud Crazy Thunder. "I think there is a great avenue for them to understand that they can report these and that follow through will happen."

Added Groote: "There's a lot of non reporting going on. If you talk to Native Americans in the community you can see that this is something that might affect them on a daily basis but they don't necessarily feel comfortable with reporting it."
Crazy Thunder said she thought the new intitiative in the judicial system is emblematic of broader currents.

"Change is coming to our community," she said. "I think that it's happening. I think that we're all responsible for that change so if we see certain incidents happening in our community we have to be that voice, we have to acknowledge that it's happening and not turn a blind eye to it."