South Dakota’s Juvenile Justice Landscape

Dec 5, 2019 |

In 2013 South Dakota had the second highest juvenile commitment rate in the country, despite our juvenile violent crime rate being 1/3 the national average. We were spending a significant amount of the state’s juvenile justice budget on out of home placements, sending youth to costly state run and private facilities, all with a poor return on investment. Nearly half of our kids who released from any type of facility returned to custody within three years.

System Improvement Roadmap

Driven by a concern with the poor outcomes associated with the state’s long-standing practice of over-utilizing out of home placement, South Dakota sought assistance from the Pew Charitable trusts and partner the Crime and Justice Institute, a division of Community Resources for Justice to provide much needed technical assistance to our state. The process began with the formation of a bi-partisan, interbranch workgroup to study our juvenile justice system. The work group studied our state level data and identified a number of priority areas for improvement. Our work group identified that most of the youth sent to Department of Corrections were committed for low level offenses, status offenses, probation violations and misdemeanors. Only one of the top ten commitment offense types was even a felony.

While commitments to DOC had already been declining prior to our work with PEW, the work group found that youth were staying in facilities for longer periods of time. They found a similar trend with the probation population with lower risk youth making up a larger portion of probation caseloads, with similar increased time on probation supervision. Diversion was used inconsistently across the state, with many areas of the state simply not offering a diversion alternative for youth, thereby, unnecessarily pushing youth into the formal court process. Needless to say, there were few off-ramps built into the juvenile justice system for kids in South Dakota, which contributed to the overutilization of facilities.

Key Policy Areas Targeted in SB 73

PEW’s stakeholder driven policy making process resulted in a legislative package designed to  better meet the needs of young people in South Dakota while maintaining public safety as a priority. A final report with policy recommendations aimed at addressing key policy areas was drafted and passed as SB 73 by the 2015 South Dakota legislature.

The key policy areas included a Diversion Fiscal Incentive program, limiting eligibility for commitment to state custody, developing an array of evidenced based community services, and Performance Based Contracting to address the growing lengths of stay experienced by South Dakota’s committed youth.

By providing fiscal incentives to counties to expand diversion, more youth have the opportunity to avoid formal court involvement. The Department of Corrections awards funding to counties based on the number of youth who successfully complete diversion. In our first year, we paid out just 970 successful diversions statewide. In FY 19, we saw 1,614 successful diversions. In fact, the diversion fiscal incentive fund has been so successful that we are seeking to increase the budget allocated to the diversion fund because it works!

A primary goal of the workgroup was to prioritize out of home placements for youth who presented a risk to public safety. By statutorily limiting eligibility for commitment, South Dakota has seen a sharp decline in the number of young people placed out of their homes by the Department of Corrections. In FY 19 just 79 youth were committed to DOC and zero youth were recommitted following formal discharge from custody. Prior to the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act in FY 15, the state saw 193 new commitments to DOC and 10 recommits for a total of 203 youth, a 61% reduction over a four-year period.

Aligning South Dakota’s juvenile justice system with the research, specifically using community-based interventions in lieu of out of home placement for lower risk youth has allowed families to stay intact and to participate in family-based interventions such as FFT in their own homes.

Finally, the Department of Corrections Juvenile division instituted a performance based contracting process with our contracted private provider system. Private facilities receive an enhanced payment when a youth’s treatment goals are substantially completed within targeted timeframes. This practice has resulted in a reduction in length of stay in two of our three placement categories for youth placed by the Department of Corrections. The group home population for example, has gone from a high of eight months to four months for the past three fiscal years, without compromising public safety, as recidivism rates have held steady.

A Path to Improved Outcomes for Youth

Shifting a system from leading the nation in juvenile incarceration to a system committed to producing better outcomes for young people is not an easy task. The policy changes described have disrupted the status quo and challenged stakeholders to rethink how we best meet the needs of adjudicated youth in South Dakota. Redirecting public funds to interventions proven to reduce recidivism makes sense, but system change is hard work and is not fully accomplished in a short period of time. The early outcomes are encouraging for South Dakota and with the continued work of the Oversight Council, I’m optimistic we can keep our focus on improved outcomes by using data and research as the driver for South Dakota’s juvenile justice system policies.