Keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system in South Dakota

Keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system in South Dakota

Not every child who runs afoul of the law belongs in the criminal justice system. Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel believes this firmly after more than 25 years as a prosecutor.

“Statistics have shown that once a kid goes into the criminal justice system, they usually don’t get out of it,” said Roetzel. She explained most young people who enter probation struggle to keep out of trouble because “kids are kids.”

“They’re gonna break curfew. They’re going to have trouble going to school, maybe,” said Roetzel. “And once you’re on probation, you stay on probation, and then they find themselves getting in more and more trouble.”

To be clear, especially serious offenses — like violent crimes or other high level offenses — continue to land juveniles in the court system. However, some first-time offenses and petty crimes may make a young person eligible for diversion programming instead. These programs can include substance abuse counseling, Teen Court and mediation through the Center for Restorative Justice.

Roetzel was one of the proponents of a recent bill to increase the reimbursement rate for counties who make use of diversion programs. Senate Bill 47 increased the state’s reimbursement from $250 per child to $750 per child. The bill was introduced at the request of the Department of Corrections, which has reimbursed counties for successful juvenile diversions for eight years. Kristi Bunkers, the director of juvenile services within the state DOC, told lawmakers more than 12,000 young people have avoided entering the formal justice system for alcohol, drug, tobacco or truancy offenses in that time.

“We know one of the greatest predictors of adult incarceration is juvenile incarceration,” Bunkers told the House Judiciary Committee. “This bill aims to prioritize public funds for proven programs that reduce offending and support our next generation rather than putting them on a path towards the adult criminal justice system.”

Lawmakers ultimately approved the increased reimbursement rate.

“When you look at how much money you would spend to incarcerate an adult in a prison, it doesn’t even begin to compare,” Roetzel said. “If we can do early intervention on a young person and that eventually leads to them not going to prison as an adult? I mean, it’s just easy math.”

In many cases, young people committing petty offenses or abusing drugs and alcohol require counseling to address the root cause of the behavior. Roetzel says many families can’t afford those services on their own.

You can read the full article at the Brookings Register.