Three Lessons of South Dakota’s Correctional Reforms

South Dakota’s correctional reforms teach important lessons

South Dakota has passed an extensive package of legislation that will forestall the planned building of new prisons and invest in community-based supervision and health services. Sentences for violent offenders will stay tough and even in some cases get tougher. But non-violent offenders who have drug, alcohol and mental health problems will be presumed eligible for probation. Similar efforts are ongoing in many states, but South Dakota illustrates three aspects of the state of correctional reform in the U.S..

1. Conservatives are serious about reducing the number of people in prison. It has been noted for some time that a number of conservative thinkers (e.g., Pat Nolan, Bill Bennett) have expressed an interest in correctional reform. But that doesn’t ensure that conservatives holding elected office feel the same way. The reforms in South Dakota, an extremely conservative state in which Republicans dominate both houses of the legislature and also hold the governorship, demonstrate that conservative interest in reform is real and will be reflected in new policies (One could add as further examples the reforms in South Carolina and Texas).

2. Interest in reducing the growth of prisons will not go away when states get their budgets back in balance. This is a commonly expressed fear, but South Dakota undertook its reforms with its annual budget in surplus and a sizable rainy day fund in the bank.

3. Even though prisons are primarily a state issue, federal government action matters for reform. South Dakota pioneered the remarkable 24/7 Sobriety program, an effective community-based response to repeat drunk drivers, many of whom would otherwise ultimately be imprisoned. It was a local invention, but it was made possible by a federal government grant. Likewise, the state’s planned expansion of other alternatives to prison will be supported through federal grant programs that have drawn bipartisan Congressional support starting in George W. Bush’s presidency and continuing into Obama’s. Finally, no one in the White House is using the bully pulpit to whip voters into a frenzy about crime and drugs, which gives state lawmakers more room to maneuver without being seen as soft on crime.

All of which is to say that correctional reform has, thank goodness, a bright future in this country.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Three Lessons of South Dakota’s Correctional Reforms”

  1. All of which is to say that correctional reform has, thank goodness, a bright future in this country.

    I honestly wouldn’t go that far. I am glad that the political realities allow for some reform, but overall, this still seems a fairly limited reassessment of existing policies. If these policies actually prevent a growth of the incarcerated population by 25% over the next 10 years and instead keep it stable, that will be a good thing, but it is not the same as a reduction. South Dakota would still be treading water.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with being cautious when it comes to tweaking the criminal justice system, and this is inarguably a hard problem, so I understand that baby steps may be called for, but seeing a bright future still seems to require rose-tinted glasses. 🙂

  2. “Finally, no one in the White House is using the bully pulpit to whip voters into a frenzy about crime and drugs, which gives state lawmakers more room to maneuver without being seen as soft on crime.” That is no small thing.

  3. To know whether it’s sustainable and exportable, I think we’d need to know at least two things:

    – What was the rhetoric behind this change?
    Was it a kind of wonky “studies show that this works better than incarceration”? (“Works better” defined as …?) And those wonky studies were accepted rather than mocked?
    Or was it driven by Christian groups saying we should do more helping and forgiving?
    Or was it driven by the plutocracy saying “look, we don’t care which poor people get thrown into prison or why, but goddamnit when the price gets this high we’re no longer willing to pay”?

    – How were the usual opponents to this sort of thing (the prison guards, victims rights groups, and so on) bought off or bypassed?

  4. Pingback: Texas Tint News

Comments are closed.