Today, more than 2.2 million people are in American jails and prisons. Nearly 4.7 million people are on probation or parole. And nearly 70 million people are living with a criminal record.
If you think those numbers are staggering, you’re right.
Instead of strengthening and expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and tackling failing systems like education, housing, and unemployment, for too long, politicians have pushed tough-on-crime policies that have led us to a mass incarceration crisis.
Our criminal justice policies have created a system of mass incarceration that hurts our communities and has disproportionate impacts on low-income families and communities of color. Too many of our neighbors who commit nonviolent offenses are ensnared in a prison system that is severely overcrowded. Existing tough-on-crime policies, particularly around punitive drug policies, have failed to achieve public safety while putting an unprecedented number of people behind bars and eroding constitutional rights. This system also erodes economic opportunity, family stability, and civic engagement during incarceration and sometimes creating life-long challenges upon release.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for smart justice.
Smart justice is a way of addressing criminal justice issues that solves the problems of crime rather than simply punishing people. Smart justice addresses the profound connections of crime to mental health, addiction, employment, education, and housing. Smart justice doesn’t spend money on ineffective responses to crime. Instead, it clears clogged courtrooms and overcrowded jails and prisons, empowers communities while keeping them safe, and actually improves safety through approaches proven to reduce crime/recidivism and to help people lead law-abiding lives.
- Imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to crime that traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities. It should be the last option, not the first. Public safety is best served by focusing on solving the problems that lead to crime rather than maximizing sentences after crimes have already occurred.
Expand the use of alternatives to prison
- We believe in expanding the use of treatment and diversion programs whenever possible. By targeting the underlying problems that lead to crime in the first place, effective diversion programs can make our justice system fairer and South Dakota safer.
Work to end tough-on-crime approaches to drug users struggling with addiction
- Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, assigning years in prison to those who have a drug present in their system is disproportionate and causes more harm than good to individuals struggling with addiction, their families, and their communities. In 2018, the South Dakota Legislative Research Council estimated that reclassifying ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor would decrease jail costs by more than $1 million a year and prison costs by more than $5.1 million a year. Over 10 years, that would result in more than $61 million in decreased state and county costs.
Eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system
- People of color in South Dakota are disproportionately overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Though Native Americans make up 9 percent of the state’s population, they make up 33 percent of the prison population. Similarly, though just 2 percent of South Dakotans are black or African American, they make up more than 7 percent of the prison population.