This commentary was originally featured in the Argus Leader on March 15, 2018.
Governors from the around the country spend a lot of time competing for jobs and figuring out how to promote economic development so their state has more assets and fewer liabilities. Here in South Dakota, there is a symbol of economic transformation that stands out as starkly as Mount Rushmore. Earlier this year, S.D. auctioned off a now unused juvenile detention center in Custer for $2.34 million. Not only does this cash infusion reduce the burden on taxpayers, but the site will be used for a clean energy light industrial park that promises to create jobs and contribute to local tax rolls.
South Dakotans are a resourceful people, but how did the state manage to make lemonade out of lemons? The answer lies in the passage of Senate Bill 73 in 2015, which overhauled the state’s juvenile justice system. In 2011, S.D. had the second highest rate of confining juveniles in the country and by 2015, costs had risen to as high as $144,000 per youth per year. While public safety is paramount, taxpayers were not getting their money’s worth, as half of all youths released from state facilities were returning within three years.
To address these subpar results, SB73 prioritized space in residential facilities for youth who are considered a public safety threat and greatly expanded local programs that reduce recidivism and more effectively hold young offenders accountable.
Fortunately, enough time has passed so that it is possible to assess the impact of the legislation and a recently released report shows very positive outcomes so far.
The most important measuring stick in juvenile justice is reducing re-offending. Unlike most businesses, the goal in corrections is not to see repeat customers, so it is encouraging that 92 percent of those youth discharged from custody in fiscal year 2016 did not return, versus 80 percent of youth in 2014.
Of course, the sale of the Custer facility was only possible due to the sharp drop in the number of youths being locked up. From 2014 to 2017, the number of youths confined by the state fell 63 percent, dropping from 336 to 136. During this same timeframe, new commitments fell 56 percent.
Reducing the secure confinement of youths must go hand in hand with strengthening probation to provide the necessary supervision and services to put troubled kids on the right track. Fortunately, SB73 made numerous improvements to probation, including implementing graduated sanctions and incentives so that a youth probation experiences an immediate response to their behavior.
In 2017, 96 percent of youth completed their term of probation, up from 85 percent in 2014. Remarkably, the number and rate of probation violations, as well as the proportion of youths revoked from probation, fell by more than half during this time.
Of course, not every youth who is truant or steals a bag of chips needs to go on formal probation. That’s why SB73 expanded the availability of diversion programs, particularly those like functional family therapy that strengthens the capacity of the parent to manage their child. It is self-evident that a stronger family translates over the long run into far less of a need for costly government intervention. Since the legislation took effect, 2,887 youths have participated in community-based diversion programs, with 72 percent successfully completing the program. The minority that fail are formally adjudicated and held accountable through probation.
Undoubtedly, a justice system that provides both consequences for criminal activity and rehabilitation is a core function of government. Yet, too often states have written a blank check for spending on corrections without applying the same lens of accountability that, particularly as conservatives, we bring to every other government program. For decades, policymakers in state capitols across the country asked taxpayers for more money to build more prisons and detention centers, but S.D. has flipped the script by doing more with less. If politicians in other states say they cannot do the same, they need only look at the results from S.D. and consider the benefits of turning a site that once housed juveniles in Custer to a catalyst for prosperity.