Grant Allows Task Force To Look At Mental Health In Criminal Justice System

SD Chief Justice: 'Mental illness clearly is an evil and we should and will do something.'

Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced the creation of a task force Wednesday morning aimed at addressing mental health within the criminal justice system in South Dakota. The announcement comes after the state received a more than $300,000 grant.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust created a Rural Healthcare Program in the midwest in 2009, and has since provided charitable funds to help advance healthcare in South Dakota.

Grandson of Leona Helmsley and Helmsley Charitable Trustee Walter Panzirer said, “There are a lot of people with mental health issues that end up in the criminal justice system.”

The Helmsley Charitable Trust funded a study released last year that gave a picture of mental health in South Dakota.

“There’s a lot of people that are incarcerated that might not need to be incarcerated,” said Panzirer.

The trust is now helping fund a task force to look deeper into the issue. The grant will allow its 22 members to examine how and why people with mental health illnesses end up in the criminal justice system, early prevention and access to professionals. They’ll also develop policy solutions and savings.

Daugaard said, “We might have ideas in South Dakota but some of those ideas may have been tried unsuccessfully in other states and learn from their mistakes and also learn from their successes.”

South Dakota Supreme Court Justice David Gilbertson is heading up the task force. He says his main concern is the wait times for defendants suspected of having a mental illness.

Gilbertson said, “It clogs up our already burdened criminal courts, wastes taxpayer money, and maybe most importantly, is a disservice to the people with mental illness.”

Gilbertson says the number of court ordered competency exams tripled from 48 in 2013 to 147 in 2015 and he doesn’t know why.

“We never saw it coming,” said Gilbertson. “Mental illness clearly is an evil and we should and will do something.”

The Governor says developing a task force to find solutions is a proven process. In recent years, Daugaard says they helped reform both the adult and juvenile justice systems in the state.

Members of the task force include psychiatrists, attorneys, judges and law enforcement agencies from across the state. Barbara Pierce with the Crime and Justice Institute, Second Circuit Presiding Judge Larry Long and Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead are just a few of it’s member.

Tribal Relations also allocated $116,000 to help fund the effort. The task force is expected to complete their findings in about a year.