While we wait for House State Affairs to pick a day to hear House Bill 1183, Rep. Steve Hickey's effort to end South Dakota's use of the death penalty, the Legislative Research Council has weighed in with its analysis of the fiscal impact on South Dakota's prisons. According to the LRC, ending the death penalty would have no impact on incarceration costs.

The LRC finds that the seven men South Dakota has sentenced to death since 1979 have spent an average of 9.8 years on death row. The LRC notes that two of those cases skew this very small sample: Eric Robert gave up his appeals and goaded us into killing him within a year of his sentencing, while Robert Leroy Anderson denied us the satisfaction of killing him by committing suicide just four years after his death sentence. Removing those outliers leaves us with an average South Dakota death row stay of 12.8 years, still two years shorter than the national average.

The LRC notes that in complying with state law, their fiscal impact statement considers only the fiscal impact in the corrections system and "does not validate, or calculate any potential costs or savings associated with the judicial or appeals process." Ending the death penalty won't make us spend more on prisons; include cost savings from a shorter sentencing and appeals process, and fiscal conservatives in Pierre may find themselves compelled to vote for HB 1183.

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The South Dakota Legislature already has three mostly futile bills before it questioning or delaying the implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards. Senate Bill 64 in particular prohibits the state Board of Education from implementing Common Core or any other set of standards drafted by collaborating states before July 1, 2016.

But what about other departments implementing Common Core? In FY 2013, our Department of Labor and Regulation funded training to help 229 state prison inmates obtain their GEDs. This year, the new GED Testing Service, a partnership of the American Council on Education and the for-profit publisher Pearson, offers a GED test revamped to align with Common Core.

Gasp! Prisoners subjected to tests aligned with Common Core! Sounds like torture to me!

The new GED could be torturous for some inmates and other folks seeking an equivalent to a high school diploma. Contrary to some of the arguments you might hear from opponents of Common Core, alignment with the new standards hasn't dumbed down the GED. The new computer-based test will be notably harder:

To pass the new GED test, students will need some background knowledge, not just the ability to understand the passage in front of them. There will be more emphasis on critical thinking, more questions on science, and more writing. In addition, the scoring will change to identify whether the students who pass are just “high-school equivalent” or are at a new higher standard of “college- and career-ready.” C.T. Turner with the GED Testing Service says: “If we don't provide them something of value, and they don't have the information and skills they need, we are setting them up for failure” [Kavitha Cardoza, "The GED Test Is about to Get Much Harder, and Much More Expensive," The Atlantic, 2013.10.08].

Perhaps anti-Common Core agitators will amend Senate Bill 64 to prohibit the Department of Labor and Regulation from sneaking Common Core in through the back door of the state pen. It seems more likely, though, that the state might move away from the GED for fiscal rather than ideological reasons. GED Testing Service is charging $120 a pop, about twice what the old GED cost. A GED Testing Service spokesperson calls the higher price "rock-bottom pricing":

[C.T. Turner] says states will actually save money because until now local testing centers have had to pay separately for scheduling, proctoring, and scoring the test. All of that will be included in the new price. He says that states or private employers can always subsidize the test if they choose to [Cardoza, 2013.10.08].

Some states aren't convinced. So far, eleven states have moved to the HiSet, an alternative high-school equivalency exam developed by ETS and the Iowa Testing Service. HiSet price tag: $50.

Senate Bill 64 goes to Senate State Affairs (what? not Senate Education?) on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. Let's see if anyone brings up GED and other manifestations of Common Core outside the Board of Education's purview.

Related: According to GED Testing Service's 2012 annual statistical report (the most recent data available), 81,935 South Dakota adults lack a high school credential. in 2010, 1,490 South Dakotans took the GED, 953 completed it, and 644 passed it. Our pass rate for test completers was 67.6%, slightly lower than the national rate of 69.1%.

American Indians made up 33.1% of South Dakota's GED test takers in 2012, but only 21% of our GED test passers. South Dakota's American Indian GED test takers have a 52.8% pass rate, compared to a 74.5% pass rate for white South Dakotans, a 74.0% pass rate for American Indians nationwide, and an 83.1% pass rate for whites nationwide.

Men and women taking the GED in South Dakota have comparable pass rates, 67.4% and 67.7%, respectively. Nationally, men tend to pass the GED more often than women, 72.8% vs. 64.5%, respectively.

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Jessica Giard reports that Florida-based Youth Services International is closing the Chamberlain Academy, a youth detention and treatment facility in Chamberlain. This private facility, licensed by the state Department of Social Services, has housed an average of 22 juveniles over the past year (its capacity is 40) and supported 37 jobs in Chamberlain.

YSI is closing a similar facility in Elmore, Minnesota. Three years ago, YSI closed its youth detention facility in Springfield, South Dakota.

YSI has a history of bad news related to its for-profit youth detention facilities. In 2000, YSI gave cash settlements to get five of six juvenile plaintiffs to drop their lawsuits over sexual abuse by insufficiently vetted and supervised Chamberlain Academy employee James Johnson. YSI initially tried to get out of the lawsuits by claiming immunity under the South Dakota law protecting public correctional facilities from prosecution, but Judge Lawrence Piersol nixed that ploy.

A child under YSI's care at its Forest Ridge facility in Estherville, Iowa, died after being denied adequate medical care for ten days, as staff seemed more concerned that the inmate was faking illness. An Oklahoma attorney visited YSI's Forest Ridge in November 1995 and found "excessive restraining of youths, group punishment for individual acts, unwritten rules, inadequate access for youths to the courts, and a poor policy for youths to air grievances." (Forest Ridge is now owned an operated by an apparently local non-profit organization.)

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against YSI in October, 2010, for alleged abuses of youth at YSI's Florida facilities. YSI arranged a sealed settlement. YSI continues to run a number of juvenile detention facilities in Florida and to skirt rules while profiting significantly from that state's privatization of juvenile corrections:

Florida’s permissive oversight has allowed Youth Services International to essentially game the system since entering the state more than a decade ago. Despite contractual requirements that the company report serious incidents at its facilities, YSI routinely fails to document problems, sanitizes those reports it does submit and pressures inmates to withhold evidence of mistreatment, according to interviews with 14 former YSI employees.

“The state is not doing enough,” said Wanda Williams, a former staffer at YSI’s Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, who quit in 2010 after growing disgusted with the violence and squalid conditions she saw inside the prison. “Because if they were, that place should have been shut down by now” [Chris Kirkham, "Prisoners of Profit: Florida's Lax Oversight Enables Systemic Abuse at Private Youth Prisons," Huffington Post, 2013.10.23].

Last year, a federal report found almost one in three inmates at YSI's Paulding Youth Detention Center in Dallas, Georgia, reporting sexual abuse. In October, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice closed the Paulding facility. State officials say that closing was about declining juvenile detainee numbers, not sexual abuse problems. Georgia has maintained contracts with YSI to run two other youth detention centers.

In 2012-2013, the South Dakota Department of Social Services contracted with Youth Services International to provide services for juveniles placed through Corrections, Child Protection, and Tribal Court at the Chamberlain Academy at a rate of $142.94 per child per day. Given YSI's track record and the unseemliness of for-profit prisons, perhaps South Dakota can find a better use for that money now that YSI is leaving the state.

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Governor Dennis Daugaard's FY2015 budget proposal includes a boost to this fiscal year's corrections budget of $4 million. The Governor says we need to pump $4 million more into our prisons to fix a "correctional healthcare shortfall" arising from "significant inmate healthcare events." His budget proposes an immediate transfer of another $1.5 million to establish a reserve fund for correctional healthcare.

In next year's budget, Governor Daugaard is asking for $18,284,647 for correctional healthcare, an increase of $2,446,226 (19.6% over this year's budgeted amount), again due largely to "significant inmate healthcare events." That branch of our corrections budget will employ 87.0 full-time equivalents.

So that's nearly eight million more dollars of the common wealth that we need to lock up in lock-up. Is there any way to ease that budget burden on South Dakotans?

We could stop putting so many people in prison (and lowering the incarceration rate is one of Governor Daugaard's goals). But until we stop throwing the book at people who might get sick, we've got bills to pay.

Our friends in Minnesota have a suggestion: put inmates on Medicaid:

A Minnesota law set to take effect next month means the federal government will pick up the tab on hospital visits by some inmates of Minnesota jails and prisons, a move that could save the state millions.

It’s the first in-state change in decades to a long-standing rule that deems inmates ineligible for Medicaid, known in Minnesota as Medical Assistance [Abby Simons, "Next Year, Feds Will Pick up the Tab for Minnesota Inmate Hospitalizations," Minneapolis StarTribune, 2013.12.13].

Guess what law makes this budget crutch possible?

Backers say the long-desired law was made possible in part by the Affordable Care Act, which expanded Medical Assistance eligibility to single adults — a demographic that makes up a large portion of people behind bars. Cost savings could run as high as $6.1 million for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which operates the state’s prisons, and $5.5 million for the state’s counties, which pay for the jails.

Counties and the state will continue to foot the bill for medical care provided inside the detention facilities, which makes up the majority of the health care budgets.

The potential $11 million savings is “only a sliver of the cost, but a few slivers add up to real money,” said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, which pushed for the change [Simons, 2013.12.13].

Get the feds to pick up state costs—sounds like a South Dakota solution to me! Unlike much of the South Dakota state budget, our correctional health budget includes no federal funds. Accepting federal assistance to treat some of the single adults we lock up would ease our tight budget. But since this budget boost would come from the ACA Medicaid expansion, Governor Daugaard is unlikely to entertain that solution.

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Senate Bill 70, Governor Dennis Daugaard's omnibus bill to reform South Dakota's burgeoning corrections system, received strong approval from the full Senate yesterday. Only two senators voted no on vague concerns about growing government.

Some of my crankier Republican friends have noted another reason to question or amend SB 70, if not vote the whole thing down. Scroll down to the bottom of SB 70, and you'll find Sections 71 through 75, which makes a surprising deviation from corrections to elections. Intended to insulate the governor's current pet project from the voters, Sections 71–75 require that proponents of ballot initiatives that would in any way affect prison populations, like initiatives that would create new penalties for crimes, must obtain fiscal impact statements from Pierre on their proposal before circulating petitions. As I note in my South Dakota Magazine column, this measure may reduce the time advocates have to circulate petitions by a couple weeks, thus raising one more barrier to direct democracy.

In weighing down the initiative process, these sections of SB 70 appear to address a problem that does not exist. I'm hard-pressed to think of any recent voter initiative that has swollen South Dakota's prison population or corrections costs. The Governor and the Legislature appear to be using a popular bill to take a quiet whack at the legislative power that our state constitution reserves to the people.

Most of Senate Bill 70 looks reasonable. But I encourage the House to amend Sections 71 through 75 to protect the people's voice from an unnecessary weakening of the ballot initiative.

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South Dakota has been on a prison bender during the past couple decades, incarcerating people at a faster rate than surrounding states even though our crime rate is about the same as our neighbors'. Governor Daugaard wants to address that costly problem with a proposal to reform our parole and probation system and reduce recidivism.

South Dakota's goal should not be to put more people in prison. Our goal should be to keep people from going to prison in the first place. Toward that end, Kevin Drum posts a hefty article in Mother Jones that contends one of the biggest contributors to crime (not to mention hyperactivity, attention-deficit problems, IQ decline, and other health problems) is lead contamination. He cites economic and public health research that finds the use of tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive correlates tightly with crime rates. When leaded gasoline surged, the crime rate surged about 20 years later. When the U.S. got rid of leaded gasoline, the crime rate dropped about 20 years later. The research Drum cites finds the lead–crime link holding at national, state, and even neighborhood levels. The science is pretty clear: even tiny amounts of lead mess up the parts of the brain that make people behave themselves.

Drum notes that even though we've switched to unleaded gasoline, all the lead we coughed from our tailpipes is still around on the ground. We kick it up and breathe it and our kids pick it up and eat it all the time. And there's still lead in the paint of lots of old houses, which gets released when folks renovate or just slide their windows open and shut. So there are still plenty of health gains to be had by cleaning up lead.

Drum estimates that a serious nationwide program to replace old windows and clean up lead in soil would cost $20 billion per year for twenty years. Adding up just the benefits of increased income from higher IQs and savings from a 10% reduction in crime, Drum estimates we'd get an annual return of $210 billion. Spend a buck on lead mitigation, and you get ten and a half bucks back, with nearly three-quarters of the benefit coming from crime reduction.

But the attention and money we could have been spending on lead mitigation has gone toward building prisons:

At the same time that we should reassess the low level of attention we pay to the remaining hazards from lead, we should probably also reassess the high level of attention we're giving to other policies. Chief among these is the prison-building boom that started in the mid-'70s. As crime scholar William Spelman wrote a few years ago, states have "doubled their prison populations, then doubled them again, increasing their costs by more than $20 billion per year"—money that could have been usefully spent on a lot of other things. And while some scholars conclude that the prison boom had an effect on crime, recent research suggests that rising incarceration rates suffer from diminishing returns: Putting more criminals behind bars is useful up to a point, but beyond that we're just locking up more people without having any real impact on crime. What's more, if it's true that lead exposure accounts for a big part of the crime decline that we formerly credited to prison expansion and other policies, those diminishing returns might be even more dramatic than we believe. We probably overshot on prison construction years ago; one doubling might have been enough. Not only should we stop adding prison capacity, but we might be better off returning to the incarceration rates we reached in the mid-'80s [Kevin Drum, "America's Real Criminal Element: Lead," Mother Jones, Jan/Feb 2013].

We still have to have someplace to put the inevitable bad guys. But a comparable investment in cleaning up lead would reduce the amount we have to spend on building prison cells. Governor Daugaard's proposal to reform our parole and probation system may do some good with people already in the system, but some serious, long-term environmental thinking will keep more people out of the criminal justice system.

Related: The South Dakota Department of Health reminds you that eating venison shot with lead bullets may pose a higher risk of lead contamination than eating pheasants shot with lead pellets.

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South Dakota has the same crime rate as surrounding states but a higher incarceration rate. Betty Olson and Scott Craig probably think the solution is to hand out more guns.

The American Civil Liberties Union and South Dakota Families First want you to think about South Dakota's burgeoning prison population, the drug war, and how we might change public policy for the better. They are thus hosting a screening of The House I Live In at the downtown Public Library in Sioux Falls Thursday night:

SDFF board member and retired cop Tony Ryan explains why South Dakotans should pay attention to this film:

Last year alone, drug and alcohol offenses comprised more than half of the admissions to prison.

Ryan explains, “The criminalization of drug users is counterproductive. The increasing trend to lock up drug users has led to the crisis we’re dealing with today. Families are divided, addicts are left untreated, and taxpayers are burdened with hefty bills that have little to no return on public safety. We’re falling far below the national average of solving rape and robbery cases, so we’re concerned about the quality of law-enforcement after two decades of primarily going after low level drug offenders. Police and jailers are not addiction experts and shouldn’t be using a majority of their resources to lock up people simply for drug possession.”

Ryan believes many other states are moving to embrace a health-centered approach to drug policy, which will leave police free to focus on violent and serious crimes [press release, ACLU/SDFF, 2012.12.18].

The House I Live In won the Grand Jury documentary prize at Sundance 2012, the same film festival where The Invisible War, the documentary Rep. Stace Nelson helped make, won the Audience prize, so the film must be quality stuff!

If you want to see it and talk it over with interested neighbors, get to the downtown Sioux Falls public library Thursday evening, December 20. Meet and greet with film sponsors starts at 5:30 p.m.; film rolls at 6 p.m.; panel discussion happens at 7 p.m.

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The Institute for Economics and Peace issues its United States Peace Index, ranking the fifty states on their "peacefulness." IEP bases its USPI on five indicators: "the number of homicides, number of violent crimes, the incarceration rate, number of police employees and the availability of small arms."

The good news: the United States "is more peaceful now than at any other time over the last twenty years." That's funny: just the other day, a nice conservative retireee (who signed my HB 1234 petition) told me that everything was going to hell under President Obama.

His perception must have been skewed by the local bad news: South Dakota ranks just 20th on the U.S. Peace Index.

United States Peace Index 2010, issued April 24, 2012, by Institute for Economics and Peace, http://www.visionofhumanity.org/uspeaceindex/

United States Peace Index 2010, issued April 24, 2012, by Institute for Economics and Peace, http://www.visionofhumanity.org/uspeaceindex/

Lower numbers are good; higher numbers are bad. South Dakota's Peace Index in 2010 was 2.32, higher than that in any adjoining state. Hurting our score are our higher-than average incarceration rate and the presence of lots of small arms (Gordon Howie will dispute the validity of that metric).

Minnesota is the most peaceful state in the region, ranking fourth nationwide with a USPI of 1.61. North Dakota is close behind, ranking sixth at 1.74... although one must wonder how much the Bakken oil boom and associated increase in crime have affected that numbers since the 2010 data used for this scorecard.

Taking a longer view, IEP finds 31 states saw their Peace Index improve from 1991 to 2010.

U.S. Peace Index change from 1991 to 2010, from Institute for Economics and Peace, http://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/2012-United-States-Peace-Index-Report.pdf

U.S. Peace Index change from 1991 to 2010, from Institute for Economics and Peace

Unfortunately, South Dakota isn't just in the minority of peace decliners; our fair state has seen the worst change in Peace Index over the last two decades, and increase (remember, larger scores are worse) of 57.43%. And perhaps oddly, many of the declines took place in our fellow states here in supposedly tranquil middle America.

Also worth noting: while our country is enjoying declines in homicides and violent crime, the United States still ranks just 82nd out of 153 countries on the Global Peace Index, right behind China and Gabon, but just ahead of Bangladesh and Serbia. Iceland, New Zealand, Japan, and Denmark are the most peaceful countries. No wonder we sing about being the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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