Justice: Opioids, meth ‘new wave of evil’

PIERRE – Despite the success of South Dakota’s drug courts, the judicial system is having a tough time keeping up with the wave of meth addiction in the state. 

That was part of the message that a joint session of the South Dakota Legislature heard from Chief Justice David Gilbertson when he delivered his State of the Judiciary message on Wednesday.

Gilbertson called drug addiction from meth, opioids and fentanyl “a new wave of evil. It is literally a matter of life and death.”

The chief justice noted that drug addiction is not necessarily a youthful condition with the highest percentage of addicts in the 40 to 64 age range. The next highest age group are addicts ages 25 to 39.

With the establishment of the first South Dakota drug court in 2007, Gilbertson said organizers knew there was a problem in the state, but they thought it could be handled. 

“Despite our best efforts, we are once again playing catch-up,” Gilbertson said. 

The program has been successful, Gilbertson said, with 82 percent of drug court graduates not re-offending. He said this saves the state money it would have spent on incarceration and child support. 

Drug courts are an out-patient program, Gilbertson explained, as participants are required to have a job and a home. “The worst of the worst have neither,” Gilbertson said.

Gilbertson suggested to the Legislature that it may be time to consider expanding the drug courts to an in-patient program to help the people who have lost the most to their addiction.

Gilbertson also offered lawmakers a primer on how the Supreme Court functions. He explained that if a case is appealed to the Supreme Court, “We do not retry that case. We do not expand the scope of the case.”

The Supreme Court must decide two questions: was a mistake made in the circuit court and was the mistake so serious as to change the outcome of the trial.

Gilbertson said the law says each defendant is entitled to “a fair trial, not a perfect one.”

Once the Supreme Court rules, the case may be sent back to the circuit court. 

“We don’t write laws,” the Chief Justice said, “we only interpret what they mean.”

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