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Will South Dakota Elections Focus on Criminal Justice?

South Dakota could save more than $6 million a year if it reclassified the charge of ingestion of a drug to a misdemeanor. It is currently a felony. (dantes1401/Twenty20)
South Dakota could save more than $6 million a year if it reclassified the charge of ingestion of a drug to a misdemeanor. It is currently a felony. (dantes1401/Twenty20)
July 6, 2018

PIERRE, S.D. – What role will criminal justice reform play in South Dakota's elections this year? The ACLU of South Dakota says it should be a top issue for candidates.

The group is launching its "Smart Justice" campaign today, pushing for a bigger focus on crime's connection to mental health, addiction, housing, employment and education.

Libby Skarin, policy director with the ACLU of South Dakota, says criminal justice shouldn't be about harsh sentencing at all costs, and that says this election could be the criminal-justice election.

"Because our criminal justice system is so huge in this country, and is such a big part of our state government, people really should be paying attention to these issues and how they affect communities and the state as a whole, as well as individuals," says Skarin.

According to Skarin, the state attorney general's race is especially important to watch, because the office has so much influence over criminal justice. She says in any state, that position sets the culture of incarceration, and lobbies on bills and policies that affect criminal justice.

Nationwide, more than two million Americans are in prison or jail.

Skarin says a major issue in South Dakota's system is racial disparities. Native Americans make up nine percent of the state's population, but 33 percent of the prison population. And two percent of South Dakotans are African American, but more than seven percent of people incarcerated.

Skarin adds a lack of transparency within the AG's office keeps the public from understanding why these disparities exist.

"What are the decisions being made on these cases, from charging to plea bargaining? At what point in the criminal justice system are people of color being put in at a rate higher than their peers who aren't people of color? And we don't know those answers, because those policies and those statistics aren't really made public," says Skarin.

The ACLU of South Dakota also is pushing for the state to reclassify ingestion of a drug from a felony to a misdemeanor. The South Dakota Legislative Research Council estimates this would save the state more than $6 million a year in prison and jail costs.

The ACLU hosts a community event, Pints and Politics, at 5:30 p.m. today (Friday) at Drifters Bar and Grille, 325 Hustan Ave., Fort Pierre.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - SD