Juvenile Drug Arrests Rise in S.D. Despite Reform Efforts

Over the past decade, South Dakota saw a significant increase in the number of juveniles arrested for drug crimes, and officials see few signs that the arrests will fall anytime soon despite recent reforms of the state juvenile justice system.

According to state crime data, the number of youths arrested on drug charges such as possession, use and distribution nearly doubled from 579 in 2008 to 1,043 in 2012. Since 2012, the number of juvenile arrests for drug crimes hasn’t fallen below 948. The number peaked at 1,062 in 2015, the same year a set of sweeping new juvenile justice reforms went into effect.

State officials are uncertain whether the upward trend in arrests means that more young people are actually using drugs, if more are being caught due to increased enforcement, or whether the juvenile justice system reforms of 2015 that sought to keep juveniles out of jail has inadvertently led to a higher re-offense rate by some juvenile drug users. The number of juveniles arrested for all other crimes not related to drugs has fallen across the state in recent years.

The rise in juvenile arrests comes as the state is already grappling with increased arrests of adults on drug charges. The number of adults arrested for drug crimes in South Dakota climbed from 2,778 in 2008 to 9,080 in 2018, an increase of nearly 227%.

Law enforcement and judicial officials have in the past blamed much of the rise in adult arrests on the methamphetamine epidemic and also the proliferation of opioid addiction in South Dakota. While the reasons for the climbing juvenile drug arrests are less clear, the arrest numbers for juveniles and adults are causing concern among state officials that the drug problem in South Dakota needs constant focus.

Tim Bormann, chief of staff to South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

Drug crime is something that’s growing in South Dakota, and it’s something we need to pay attention to,” said Tim Bormann, chief of staff to South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg.

The high juvenile drug arrest rate gave the state some unflattering national attention earlier this year. In March, 2019, a study conducted by the Greenhouse Treatment Facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, showed that South Dakota had the highest juvenile drug arrest rate in the nation in 2017. According to the study, 1,056 juvenile drug arrests were made that year, a rate of more than 45 juveniles per 10,000 South Dakotans under the age of 18. The Greenhouse study was based on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report.

By comparison, Wyoming, the state with the second-highest rate of juvenile drug arrests in the study, had 579 such arrests and a rate of about 35 drug arrests per 10,000 juveniles. Neighboring states of North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa and Nebraska all had lower arrest rates than South Dakota.

South Dakota officials, however, say the rate in the Greenhouse study doesn’t tell the whole story.

Greg Sattizahn, chairman of the South Dakota Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee

Greg Sattizahn, chairman of the South Dakota Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which monitors the state’s juvenile justice reform efforts, said the Uniform Crime Report isn’t supposed to be used to rank states. Sattizahn said there are too many factors unaccounted for in the data, including that not every jurisdiction in every state reports their statistics to the FBI. 

In 2018, 17 South Dakota jurisdictions failed to report a full year’s worth of data, said Bormann.

Despite concerns over the rankings, state data shows that the number of juveniles arrested for drug offenses has increased dramatically since 2008 and has remained at an elevated level since.

Prior to 2015, South Dakota had one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the country. The statistics was one driving force behind efforts by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard to sign what was known as the Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act in March of that year.

The law created or boosted funding for a suite of new services and diversion programs designed to fight addiction and alter behavior instead

(SD News Watch)

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