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South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson delivers his 2019 State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday, Jan. 9 in the South Dakota House of Representatives in Pierre, S.D. Jeremy Waltner / For Forum News Service

SD chief justice calls for reform in handling of drug cases

PIERRE, S.D. -- Chief Justice David Gilbertson is requesting an additional circuit court judge in the Sioux Falls area and is calling on state government to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate drug addicts in an effort to battle South Dakota’s drug epidemic.

In his State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday, Jan. 9, Gilbertson told lawmakers that the “curse” of drug and alcohol addiction is taking hold of more and more South Dakotans, and costing state’s judicial system and taxpayers significant resources.

Drugs are “everywhere,” he said, and that while South Dakota’s population has grown 8.23 percent in the past ten years, drug offenses jumped a staggering 222 percent.

He said this drastic increase is burdening the state court system -- so much so that he is supporting a request for an additional judge to serve in the state’s Second Circuit court, which serves Lincoln and Minnehaha counties.

I only support a request for new judges when it is absolutely necessary and at this point, I believe it is," Gilbertson said. "The rubber band is only going to stretch so far.”

But treatment, as opposed to incarceration, can be a solution to the state’s epidemic, he said. According to Gilbertson, 73 percent of the state Drug and Alcohol Courts’ 490 graduates last year have reentered society and remain healthy -- a “stark comparison” to those who relapse and reenter the criminal justice system.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem echoed this sentiment in her Tuesday State of the State address, proposing that the state tackle its methamphetamine problem with increased awareness education for young people, treatment for those who are addicted and increasing law enforcement.

“Our ideal is to help people beat their meth addiction and return to their jobs and families,” Noem said, while “crack(ing) down” on dealers and those that traffic drugs into the state.

Gilbertson told media following his address that he agrees with Noem’s sentiment, saying there is a “clear distinction between dealers and addicts.”

“If you’re a dealer, I think prison’s a nice place for you,” Gilbertson said. “They are trying to gain off of somebody else’s misery.”

Gilbertson dealers often have a choice whether or not to sell drugs, but an addict doesn’t have a choice whether or not to use drugs until they are successfully treated.

In addition to his proposals to combat drug addiction in the state, Gilbertson called for the state to consider establishing a mental health court in the Sioux Falls area.

Up to 26 percent of jail inmates nationally suffer from serious mental illness, he said, and such specialized courts could help those for whom “jail is not the best place.” In Minnehaha County specifically, Gilbertson said 13.5 percent of inmates screened at intake between February and June of 2018 suffered from mental illness.

A pilot of such a court was established in Pennington County in July 2018, although Gilbertson said it’s too early to measure its effectiveness. In the program, attorneys, law enforcement, court workers and medical professionals work to make sure the inmate is adequately treated.