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.