Report documents disparities in S.D. justice
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A preliminary study of the justice system in South Dakota has turned up disparate treatment of the state's American Indians.

But Gov. Bill Janklow (R), who is running for Congress, and the researchers he hired can't explain why. Citing a lack of complete data, the University of South Dakota plans to examine the issue more closely before releasing a final report months after the upcoming November 5 election.

What was uncovered during the year-long probe initiated after Janklow called a related federal study "garbage" was admittedly disturbing. "The result of the research, as a whole, raises serious questions about the treatment of American Indians in South Dakota criminal justice," Rich Braunstein of the school's Government Research Bureau (GRB) wrote.

According to an examination of 24,000 criminal cases from 1994 to 2000, Native Americans were treated differently at all parts of the system. From arrest to trial to incarceration, the research confirmed a number of disparities.

For example, Native Americans made up 8 percent of state population but 17 percent of the criminal cases. "These comparisons on their own do not support conclusions of race discrimination against American Indians," the report cautioned.

But since the data showed that Indians weren't committing more crimes per capita than whites, the report said the over-representation was of "concern." Whites, on the other hand, were under-represented even though they were charged with "slightly" more crimes on average and with more serious crimes, according to the research.

Also raising alarm to researchers was the denial of bond. According to the report, 27 percent of Native Americans were denied bond, a factor that was attributed to fears of tribal sovereignty.

Other areas of concern were found in the trial system, where Native Americans less likely to be acquitted and less likely to receive a "favorable" disposition. These disparities were attributed to a number of factors including anecdotal evidence of a higher acceptance of plea bargains a lack of private -- and costly -- legal representation.

"This is problematic for American Indian defendants because the acquittal rate is lower and conviction rate is higher for defendants with court appointed representation," the report noted.

Once in the prison population, Native Americans were also over-represented. According to the data, 20 percent of the state's inmates were Indian.

Although just 13 percent of the prison population was female, Native women were more likely to be in jail than their white counterparts, the report found. Native women inmates had the lowest educational level in the system, according to the research.

Native American inmates also high a higher rate of alcohol dependency than whites, the report said. Nearly 30 percent showed problems.

The state paid $24,000 for the research, which was released on Friday only after portions were leaked to the press. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that it was actually completed in August.

Braunstein will receive another $24,000 to examine the disparities more closely. He is expected to finish his work by December, with another report to follow.

Get the Report:
Justice In South Dakota: Does Race Make A Difference? (October 2002)

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S.D. study shows disparity in justice (10/22)