Fourth specialty court comes to Pennington County

The Mental Health Court pilot program is set to address the connection between mental health and incarceration

RAPID CITY, S.D. –  From 2013 to 2015, the number of court cases in South Dakota with mental health concerns tripled. Now, it’s 2019 and a new, one-of-a-kind program is launching in Pennington County with two goals. First, to reverse the trend and then to help break the cycle of incarceration.

In addition to the newly established Mental Health Court, Pennington County runs four other courts; DUI, Drug, and Veteran’s Treatment Courts.

“The idea being that if we can provide some additional assistance, we can both keep them out of prison but at the same time, increase public safety,” said Hon. Craig Pfeifle, presiding judge of the 7th Circuit.

During the 2018 South Dakota Legislative Session, lawmakers approved $248,477 to fund a Mental Health Court pilot program in Pennington County. The program went into effect Jan. 1, 2019.

The program has future plans to travel to Minnehaha County after establishing its roots where multiple court programs have thrived.

“There’s a recognition that Pennington County has done really good things with some of these other specialty courts and we have done them well over the years,” said Pfeifle.

Pfeifle describes the need for the program as one that stems from people who suffer from “severe persistent mental health issues.”

“Due to the inability to keep that under control, they have been subject to the criminal justice system,” said Pfeifle.

The program is still in its infancy and working on being developed. Pfeifle says the program has begun taking referrals and those referrals will be screened by court services officers. The referrals can come from several places, including those who make up the team of workers who help in the program.

“There’s several phases and we haven’t completely determined what those phases will be and what completion will look like,” said Hon. Jeffrey Connolly, presiding judge over the mental health court program. “It will likely be quite some time, it’ll take some type of commitment from the probationer to accomplish that.”

What is for certain, is who will make up the team of workers. Law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and treatment professionals will receive specialized training to be a part of the program.

Connolly says the diverse backgrounds of each of the team members is to help with the different aspects of the road to recovery.

“To help probationers deal with mental health issues, they might also have housing issues, employment issues and other things like that,” said Connolly.

In 2013, 48 Court Orders for evaluations, according to the Task Force on Community Justice and Mental Illness’s final report in 2016. In 2014, the number rose sharply to 141, followed by 147 in 2015.

Pfeifle explained that it’s the big cities in South Dakota that are taking on the responsibility of tackling the issue. “That’s why Rapid City and Sioux Falls are looking at more courts than other cities because we have a little bit better access to treatment even though less exists than probably what the need would require.”

Connolly says the next six months will be key in figuring out what works best for the program and those enrolled.

Categories: Crime, Local News, South Dakota News