SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Minnehaha County is locking up one-third as many youths as it did two years ago, and Pennington County is locking up about half as many.
Instead, teens caught skipping school, drinking or stealing are supervised at evening reporting centers, spending time on house arrest or wearing electronic monitoring bracelets.
It’s a major change in a state that once locked up more delinquent kids than any other, with juveniles behind bars at a rate more than twice the national average.
Now the state’s Council on Juvenile Services wants to take the philosophies and concepts that brought the changes to the rest of the state.
Hughes County Sheriff Mike Liedholt, a member of the council, said most teens grow out of problem behavior, and alternatives make more sense.
Liedholt hopes his county is one of the two to apply for $80,000 in research money the council voted to offer next year.
“Nobody wants to be soft on juvenile crime, but that’s not what this is about,” Liedholt said. “The key to me is dealing with them appropriately. We want to make sure we aren’t locking up kids that don’t need to be locked up.”
Charles Mix County State’s Attorney Pam Hein was intrigued by the numbers as well. The small county sends an out-sized number of delinquent youth from Wagner, Lake Andes and Martin to the juvenile center in Sioux Falls, she said, and any program that can help turn them around without a costly lockup is worth a look.
“If it works, I’m all for it,” Hein said.
The reductions in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, and statistics showing no corresponding increase in crime, were presented last week during a working conference in Sioux Falls for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.
The summit was attended by juvenile justice stakeholders from more than two dozen counties and eight of the state’s nine Native American tribes.
The alternatives initiative is a multistate effort led and paid for, in part, by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. The core philosophy is that detaining youth for petty crimes is the most costly, least effective way to deal with delinquency.
Doug Hoffman, a circuit judge and member of the alternatives initiative committee in Minnehaha County, likened the dependency on juvenile detentions to an addiction.
“South Dakota was addicted to detention. Maybe South Dakota is still addicted to detention. It’s a pretty tough pill to swallow when someone comes in and tells you you’re not doing it right,” Hoffman said. “We were in denial.”
In Minnehaha County, a shortage of space at an aging juvenile detention center forced the county to take the research seriously. The average daily population stood at 30 and would spike at twice that number.
“We had kids sleeping on cots in the gym,” Hoffman said. “We had plans drawn up for a new 100-bed facility.”
Now, the average number of youth in detention hovers around nine kids a day, according to Erin Srstka, Minnehaha County coordinator for the alternatives initiative.
In Pennington County, the numbers were even more severe. That county’s detention center regularly had 100 juveniles in it, according to Liz Heideilberger, that county’s alternatives initiative coordinator.
“They knew that some of the kids didn’t need to be there, but we didn’t have anything else to do but lock them up,” Heidelberger said.
Now, with an evening report center for lower-risk offenders and electronic monitoring, the average daily population at the Pennington County Juvenile Service Center is about 15.
“That’s absolutely unheard of,” she said.
To determine which kids belong in detention, both counties developed a worksheet called the Risk Assessment Instrument that scores youths based on the severity of their offense, their history and their risk to skip court.
Intake officers at a reception center use the assessment score to sort out which juveniles need to be held, which need an alternative monitoring program and which ones should be sent home to their parents.
An override is available for unique situations, Heidelberger said, and violence is the clearest indication that a detention stay is necessary.
“Detention is never going to go away,” she said.
Hoffman serves as the juvenile judge in Sioux Falls. He said the juveniles who do stay the night at the detention center and see him the next day for a hearing are treated differently now, too.
Prosecutors, probation officers and defense lawyers all meet before the detention hearing to sort out available options and serious dangers.
“I’m not going to lock a kid up at JDC because I think they might sneak out at night or because I think they might commit a petty theft.”
Srstka and Heidelberger recently said felony petitions in juvenile cases had dropped by 40 percent in Minnehaha and 20 percent in Pennington.
The alternatives initiative coordinators said the numbers don’t necessarily reflect a huge drop in juvenile crime. State’s attorney’s offices in both counties have switched from two full-time juvenile prosecutors to one and other prosecutors fill in on a part-time basis.
Also, part of the reason for the reduction in juvenile felonies hinges on decisions about how to charge the same crimes, Srstka said.
If a probation officer sees cocaine or methamphetamine in the urine test, the youth with the hot test could be charged with a probation violation or with a felony. The decision whether to charge a teen with drugs in their system with the same offense as a teen carrying drugs into school now is scrutinized more closely.
The circumstances, the youth’s background, home life and school record all are factors in how to handle individual delinquents, Srstka said.
“Both jurisdictions are asking themselves now, ‘Should I charge this?’ “ she said.
Juveniles with felonies on their record are more likely than those without felonies to end up in custody of the Department of Corrections and mingling with a rougher population of delinquents. Statistics gathered by the Casey foundation and others show that teens in detention are more likely than others to return to detention, Heidelberger said.
“You look at the kid, you look at the case and you see what you can do to keep them from going any further into the system,” she said.
What’s more important than the number of petitions and whether the principles of the alternatives initiative have led to a reduction in crime overall, said Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan, is that there are no numbers or anecdotal evidence pointing to an increase in crime.
“It’s too early to say whether that reduction is a reflection that we’re reducing the crime rate, but we do know that we haven’t adversely affected public safety by taking these steps,” McGowan said Friday.
The changes have been rapid, even when compared to other states and counties that have embraced the alternatives.
Stephanie Vetter, an alternatives initiative coordinator for several states, told attendees “South Dakota has engaged in improvements at a pace we haven’t seen before.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com