PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota trails all other states in creating courts aimed at keeping drug and alcohol offenders out of prison, but work is being done to set up more of the special programs, Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson said Wednesday.
"Sadly, we do not fare very well when compared to other states," the head of South Dakota's highest court said during his annual state of the judiciary speech to lawmakers.
The two special courts in the northern Black Hills and Pierre have a 90 percent success rate, saving the state a lot of money by keeping convicted felons with drug problems out of prison, Gilbertson said. The court system has reported that the drug court in the Black Hills saved South Dakota more than $250,000 last year.
"This method of dealing with substance abuse felons is an absolute bargain," the chief justice said to a joint session of the state Legislature.
He added that the court system eventually will need to add more staff to supervise the 10,000 people on probation throughout the state. He did not specifically ask the Legislature for more money to run the state's courts.
Drug and alcohol courts take offenders who would otherwise go to prison and place them in programs that include treatment, intensive supervision, drug testing and frequent court appearances.
Gilbertson said the Northern Hills Drug Court, which has operated in Sturgis since 2007, expanded last year to include the Rapid City area. A program in Pierre that focuses on drunken driving started in 2009, and a similar program in Sioux Falls started last year. Federal grants are being used to train people who can run similar programs in the Mitchell and Aberdeen areas, the chief justice said.
He said the U.S. Justice Department reported that in 2009, Montana had 23 drug courts, Wyoming 20, Nebraska 25, Iowa 29, Minnesota 41 and North Dakota 12.
The Northern Hills Drug Court has served 50 people, including the 18 currently in its programs. Gilbertson said those in the program now have a total of 91 years of prison time hanging over their heads, but the state will not have to pay to keep them behind bars if they complete the program. They also have 19 children who would become wards of the state if the offenders went to prison, he said.
House Republican Leader David Lust, a Rapid City lawyer, said he was intrigued to learn that the Black Hills drug court helps offenders avoid serving so much time in prison. He said there's strong evidence that drug courts save taxpayers' money, help people break addictions and keep families together.
Gilbertson also said the number of offenders on probation has risen by 500 in the past two years, so the court system will need to hire more court service officers to supervise them.
"At some point we will either have to suffer a decline in the quality of services provided, with a corresponding threat to the public order, or increase the number of court service officers," he said.
Probation costs $3 a day, while prison costs nearly $64 a day, Gilbertson said.
The court system also is continuing its study of the extent of elderly abuse, seeking ways to ease a shortage of lawyers in rural areas, and working to provide legal services to people who cannot afford to hire lawyers in divorce and child custody cases, he said.
Gilbertson noted that the Unified Judicial System joined the rest of state government last year in a 10 percent budget cut, but the court system was able to make adjustments that prevented layoffs or closing any offices.