In Our Opinion: Prison reform plan worth considering

Farm Forum

More than half of the South Dakota Legislature’s 105 members signed on to sponsor Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s new approach to criminal justice in the state.

The reason for the support? It’s just a very good plan.

Daugaard is taking on one of the biggest capital-I issues facing the country: the cost and feasability of incarceration. The governor’s plan is to identify the nonviolent offenders and divert them into treatment or other programs to better rehabilitate them and get them productive, while leaving the prisons for violent and habitual offenders.

The plan has merit in better helping and punishing people who deserve both, solving looming overcrowding issues. If the plan works, it saves millions of dollars for the state each year, to boot.

Data presented Tuesday to the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations makes the picture clear: About 80 percent of state prison inmates were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Fifty percent were convicted on alcohol or drug charges, and a quarter on parole violations.

Do these people need to fill our prisons to capacity and beyond? Is there a way to better integrate them into society and eliminate recidivism? Can our prison system be improved for maximum efficiency and success? And, most pragmatically, can we delay or even negate the need for new men’s and women’s prisons, which come with a $125 million price tag?

Let’s be clear, these are serious issues that need serious study. Daugaard is being very smart, politically speaking. After the defeat in November of many of his concepts for state education, he has come back in 2013 to take on a challenge that crosses party lines and can garner strong support.

Along with education and health care, the criminal justice system is ripe for strong, smart reform.

We will be very interested to watch this develop over the coming weeks in the Legislature.