Crime in South Dakota is dropping, but more and more cases are slipping through the cracks

RAPID CITY, S.D. – While the number of serious crimes committed in the state has fallen to the lowest number since 2014, the number of cases where the state decided not to prosecute someone who was arrested with probable cause doubled from 595 to 1189 between 2019 and 2021, according to the South Dakota State Crime Reports for those years.

For some number of arrestees to go uncharged is not abnormal. After someone is arrested by police for being suspected of committing a crime, a prosecutor working for the state must decide whether or not to bring criminal charges against them. If the prosecutor decides that there isn’t enough evidence to secure a conviction, they may decide not to bring charges at all.

“An officer may decide that there’s sufficient evidence to make an arrest and proceed with a criminal case, but the prosecutor may have a different opinion based on his legal training which is significantly more extensive than our certified law enforcement officers,” said Jim Miskimins, Davison County State’s Attorney.

But when they decide not to bring charges for any reason other than a lack of evidence, the case is known to be “cleared exceptionally.” This can be because the offender died before charges are filed, because a victim doesn’t want charges to be brought against the offender, or for any other reason.

Exceptional Clearances

According to Lara Roetzel, State Attorney for Pennington County, many of these cases that go unprosecuted are due to what she calls “judicial economy,” or a desire not to waste the very limited resources of the judicial system on unnecessary charges.

“By the time someone has got through that first-offense methamphetamine case, they’ve picked up between 5 and 8 more methamphetamine cases from drug tests during the process,” Roetzel said. “What my office has started doing is saying ‘let’s stop the madness.’”

Rather than charging a defendant with 9 methamphetamine charges, Roetzel said she may only pursue one or two and use the rest as leverage to get an agreement from the defendant to adhere to their probation and treatment programs. However, drug crimes only account for around 25% of the cases that went unprosecuted in 2021.

Half of the other crimes are minor. Around a third of them are for simple assault or intimidation, which can cover anything from a drunken shove in a bar to verbal harassment.

But many of the ‘specially cleared’ charges in South Dakota are much more serious. 70 cases of rape or statutory rape, 12 vehicle thefts, 79 aggravated assaults, and more, never went to trial because the prosecution chose not to pursue them.

It is worth noting that Pennington County is not one of the worst offenders in this regard. Less than 2% of the county’s cases were dropped due to an exceptional clearing, and most of those were because the victim was unwilling to cooperate with the prosecution, a situation common in domestic violence cases or family disputes. This is the lowest rate of any major jurisdiction in the state.

Furthermore, Pennington County is the only county to have significantly reduced the number of exceptional clearances between 2020 and 2021. 322 cases were dropped after arrests by Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in 2020, while only 239 were dropped in 2021, a decrease of over 25%.

Meanwhile, in Minnehaha County, which includes most of Sioux Falls, more than 5% of arrestees are not prosecuted. And the problem there is getting worse, not better.

A growing issue

Cases from Sioux Falls Police Department and the Minnehaha Sheriff's Office, both in Minnehaha County, made up the majority of the rise in dropped cases.

State's Attorney Daniel Haggar said he believes that the data "isn't really a clear apples to apples comparison" due to differences in the way various law enforcement agencies choose to enter their data into the NIBRS reporting system.

While differences between agencies may account for some difference in the total number of cases, it does not explain a consistent increase within a single county, as is the case in Minnehaha.

Haggar also attributed the increase to the additional use of diversion programs:

"I would point out that Minnehaha County is working to expand the use of various diversion programs in recent years which could contribute significantly to the number of cases that are listed as 'prosecution declined,'" Haggar said.

However, the numbers don't add up. While the number of unprosecuted arrestees has doubled from 2019 to 2021, the number of offenders being placed into ‘diversion programs’ for drug use and other issues has increased by less than 10% during that same period.

Haggar did not respond to further requests for comment. However, Lara Roetzel in Pennington County said the answer may lie in a lack of resources.

A strained system

“If we charged every one of the cases that came in, it would crush us. Not just the State’s Attorney Office, [but] the defense bar and the judiciary too. We’re already running at maximum capacity,” Roetzel said.

The primary issue is one of manpower. A 2022 Pennington County State's Attorney Office budget proposal described the pool of attorneys as “dangerously low.”

“It’s literally killing us. It’s absolutely killing us,” Roetzel said. “It came to the point where at the beginning of 2022, Mark Vargo, who’s the State’s Attorney. . . had to go to the county commission and say, ‘our office cannot do the work that you put in front of us. I mean we just can’t do it.”

That testimony led to an additional three prosecutors being recruited, but the situation remains dire. This lack of staff is exacerbated by the fact that much of the staff is extremely inexperienced.

"There certainly was a day in my office where I'm like, we can't prosecute all of these homicide cases. Like, we just don't have the staff to do it. And so I did have to bring in the Attorney General's Office on a couple of those, which is a great resource for us. But no, we have not hit the point where we're like, no, we can't prosecute bad cases because we just don't have the staff," Roetzal said. "I haven't seen it in South Dakota, but it is something nationally."

According to a 2022 study commissioned by the Pennington County Commission, the State’s Attorney Office is anticipated to grow by 50 percent in the next 20 years, along with a need for an additional 14 to 17 courts to be added to the court system and a need to double the size of the Court Services department.


Categories: Local News, South Dakota News