Keeping kids out of the justice system in South Dakota

More funding, partnerships could boost juvenile diversion services

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories on children that Jackie Hendry, producer and host of South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s “South Dakota Focus” will write for South Dakota News Watch. Each month, she previews the upcoming show.

 RAPID CITY — Not every child who runs afoul of the law belongs in the criminal justice system. Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel believes this firmly after more than 25 years as a prosecutor.

“Statistics have shown that once a kid goes into the criminal justice system, they usually don’t get out of it,” said Roetzel. She explained most young people who enter probation struggle to keep out of trouble because “kids are kids.”

“They’re gonna break curfew. They’re going to have trouble going to school, maybe,” said Roetzel. “And once you’re on probation, you stay on probation, and then they find themselves getting in more and more trouble.”

To be clear, especially serious offenses — like violent crimes or other high level offenses — continue to land juveniles in the court system. However, some first-time offenses and petty crimes may make a young person eligible for diversion programming instead. These programs can include substance abuse counseling, Teen Court and mediation through the Center for Restorative Justice.

Roetzel was one of the proponents of a recent bill to increase the reimbursement rate for counties who make use of diversion programs. Senate Bill 47 increased the state’s reimbursement from $250 per child to $750 per child. The bill was introduced at the request of the Department of Corrections, which has reimbursed counties for successful juvenile diversions for eight years. Kristi Bunkers, the director of juvenile services within the state DOC, told lawmakers more than 12,000 young people have avoided entering the formal justice system for alcohol, drug, tobacco or truancy offenses in that time.

“We know one of the greatest predictors of adult incarceration is juvenile incarceration,” Bunkers told the House Judiciary Committee. “This bill aims to prioritize public funds for proven programs that reduce offending and support our next generation rather than putting them on a path towards the adult criminal justice system.” 

Lawmakers ultimately approved the increased reimbursement rate.

“When you look at how much money you would spend to incarcerate an adult in a prison, it doesn’t even begin to compare,” Roetzel said. “If we can do early intervention on a young person and that eventually leads to them not going to prison as an adult? I mean, it’s just easy math.”

In many cases, young people committing petty offenses or abusing drugs and alcohol require counseling to address the root cause of the behavior. Roetzel says many families can’t afford those services on their own.

“Well, I can’t tell a kid, ‘Alright, I want you to go through diversion, but I want you to take a class where you’re going to learn how to make better choices, and it’s going to cost you $600,’” Roetzel explained. “They can’t fail just because they didn’t have the money to do it ... state’s attorneys need the financial resources to be able to help kids be successful.”

An emphasis on community-based diversion programming began in earnest during the Daugaard administration.The passage of Senate Bill 73 in 2015 made diversion the default for many misdemeanors and established the financial incentive for counties. 

According to its recently released annual report, the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office saw 669 young people enter some type of diversion programming in 2023, with 582 (87%) successfully completing the program. 

Based on the state’s previous reimbursement rate, that amounted to $145,500 back to Pennington County. At the recently approved rate increase from Senate Bill 47, 582 successful juvenile diversions would mean $436,500 back to the county.

The increase is likely to make a significant difference in more populous counties with higher numbers of youth offenders. Of course, that impact is less impressive in smaller counties with only a handful of diversion cases a year. 

Other diversion programs are supported by grant funding and community partnerships. In addition to more traditional diversion programs, Pennington County has also partnered with other organizations to offer Jujitsu training, skateboarding, and art programs for youth working through diversion.

One of those alternative juvenile diversion programs is the Just Us Mural Project, or JUMP, provided in partnership with the Rapid City Arts Council. 

Late last year, the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office was awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to support access to art programming for at-risk youth.

By next year, around 300 young people will have created 17 murals. The process includes an art therapist to help participants work through emotions that may arise, and an artist-in-residence ensures each child has some input on the finished work.

The grant application came after the success of a previous mural program.

“We had incredible outcomes,” said Pennington County Director of Diversion Kim Morsching. “There were people who never got into trouble again.” She added young people who had never thought of themselves as an artist were able to see themselves in a new light after the experience.

Morsching believes it’s important to remember that kids who end up in her office are making decisions based on their own limited experience and still-developing brains. Support, accountability, and alternative outlets for their emotions can make all the difference in redirecting negative behaviors.

“Until they have a new tool, they’re not going to use it,” said Morsching. “We provide that new tool.”

 How to watch ‘South Dakota Focus’

The next episode of South Dakota Focus airs on Thursday, March 28, at 8 p.m. Central time/7 p.m. Mountain time. It can be viewed on SDPB-TV 1, Facebook, YouTube and SD.net.

The episode includes:

  • A look at how policy approaches to juvenile justice have shifted in recent years
  • The story of a Huron family who struggled to find appropriate resources for their son
  • How creative diversion programs can help keep young people out of the justice system