PIERRE, S.D. — When juvenile offenders appear before Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Scott Myren, he tries to get them help they need in the northern communities he presides over. It's not always an easy process.
In his circuit's sparsely populated counties, juveniles may re-offend because they can't easily access local services — ranging from addiction programs to mental health treatment — so Myren says he's forced to put them into the custody of the state Department of Corrections.
A state panel report released this month found that, statewide, courts at times place juveniles in expensive state-sponsored care simply because community-based options aren't available.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard's spending plan for the upcoming budget cycle puts $3.2 million toward enacting the changes the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Initiative Work Group outlined to help keep juveniles in their homes and reduce South Dakota's startlingly high rate of adolescents in state-sponsored care — 385 per 100,000 youth, the second-highest rate in the nation in 2011.
Advocates also say reducing the number of adolescents in state care would also help cut corrections costs.
Seventy-five percent of juveniles in South Dakota are committed for misdemeanors and other minor violations, according to the findings of the group, which included lawmakers, judges, and representatives from the governor's office and corrections department.
"I know that it's an expensive option, but it's the only option I have," said Myren, who's part of the work group. "If I had other options available that would allow me to keep them in the community, I would love to do that."
The body of evidence on successfully rehabilitating juvenile offenders emphasizes keeping adolescents with their families and in their schools, according to Sarah Bryer, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network in Washington, D.C.
Community treatment options are more available in population centers such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City, officials say, but harder to find in rural areas.
"For families in rural south Dakota, it can be very isolating, very remote," said Krista Heeren-Graber, administrator for South Dakota Voices for Children, an advocacy group.
Amy Hartman works on juvenile addiction programming in Sioux Falls' office of Volunteers of America, Dakotas. She says evidence-based treatments that her residential and outpatient programs use are specifically tailored for adolescents, with materials that address issues juveniles tend to experience.
"They just think differently," Myren said. "Literally their brains are wired differently than adults."
Some dangerous juvenile offenders will always need to be under state supervision, Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk said, but weeding out low-level offenders would help both the state and the adolescents.
The state said that adopting the proposals could reduce the projected number of out-of-home juvenile commitments in South Dakota 64 percent by 2020 and could reduce the number of juveniles on probation by nearly 30 percent. For fiscal year 2014, the state had budgeted $34 million for the committed juvenile population, spending between $41,000 and $144,000 per bed yearly.
"We know that we have to invest," Kaemingk said. "We can serve many of these youth in the community, and everyone is going to be better for it."