Criminal Justice Reform in South Dakota


The incarceration rate in South Dakota is strikingly high, as its prison population has grown 500% in the last 35 years. According to Governor Dennis Daugaard (R), a large part of the reason why the incarceration rate was so high is that South Dakota was locking up nonviolent, low-level offenders at an increasing rate, making nonviolent offense comprise 80 percent of prison admissions.


In an effort to fight the growing prison population, Governor Daugaard, Chief Justice Gilbertson, and legislative leadership launched a Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) Work Group in 2013. This initiative sought to investigate and determine the causes of the high prison population, develop strategies and policies that would diminish crime and curb prison spending, invest in public safety programs that would support the rehabilitative process of offenders, and focus on incriminating violent offenders rather than non-violent offenders. With the funds saved from cutting corrections spending, the CJI intended to finance the enhancement of public safety programs to reduce recidivism. As part of this initiative, the DOC developed the Public Safety Improvement Act.

In a 2015 interview, Governor Daugaard explained how the program intended to reduce recidivism: “We have negative reinforcement with graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement for perfect compliance. It takes more people off parole sooner. The likelihood that they’ll violate probation and go back to prison goes down.” This effort to reform the criminal justice system quickly showed progress, as incarceration rates started to decline from 2013-2016.

To complement this initiative, Governor Daugaard passed several bills that support criminal justice reform in March of 2018. These reforms include:

These reforms are a good start, but South Dakota has considerable work to be done to bring justice to the system.

Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.

The American Conservative Union sent a letter in 2019 to South Dakota's legislative leadership in response to an effort to repeal its juvenile justice reforms enacted just four years ago. Read the letter, HERE.

South Dakota Letter Regarding Senate Bill 6

Letter to House of Representatives regarding Senate Bill 6