Keep STAR, say District 30 legislators

By Charley Najacht


This is part four in a series of articles this newspaper hopes will highlight problems with our approach to drug addiction, penalties, laws and policies that cost South Dakotans millions of dollars and lifetimes of pain and heartache.

All three District 30 legislators, Reps. Tim Goodwin, Julie Frye-Mueller and Sen. Lance Russell, along with Sen. Neal Tapio of Watertown, are in agreement about drug courts and the former STAR Academy near Custer.

Drugs are out of control in the state with no long-term treatment facilities available, and STAR Academy seems to be a perfect solution to the runaway drug problem, they say.

“All controlled drugs are a problem in the Southern Black Hills,” said Russell. “Prescription drugs and opiods cause great problems, even though meth is right now getting the most attention,” he said.

“Marijuana usage is at epidemic levels,” Tapio said. “A recent national survey indicated 25 percent of teenagers are users and the acceptance of the drug has skyrocketed.”

“Anecdotal evidence indicates a generational shift on recreational drug use. In many schools around the state, marijuana usage is the preferred drug of choice and has become a societal norm.

“While many suggest marijuana is not addictive and is not a gateway drug, the devastation caused by meth follows an acceptance of the drug culture. Meth usage usually follows marijuana experimentation,” he said.

Goodwin and Frye-Mueller believe that marijuana is the most prevalent drug, followed by opiods and prescription drugs, with meth being the most dangerous.

“The governor’s Senate Bill 70 extended the length of sentences to county jails from six months to 12 months for felony drug convictions,” said Russell.

“This was designed to reduce costs to the S.D. Penitentiary System, but has dramatically increased costs on the counties to warehouse the folks who are seriously addicted.

“South Dakota should invest in minimum security treatment facilities that can prevent the drug supply to these while folks are actually receiving treatment for their addiction problem,” Russell said.

“I believe we should lock up drug dealers and send users to treatment. That’s why STAR Academy should never have been closed,” Goodwin said.

“Presently when juveniles get prosecuted for repeat drug use, there isn’t a place to send them to rehabilitate. This facility is especially needed for addicts,” Goodwin said.

“I am for stiff sentences for repeat offenders,” said Frye-Mueller. “First-time offenders perhaps could have the option for a stiff sentence or a rehabilitation/treatment program,” she said.

“I believe strongly that drug usage and ‘getting high’ should be completely condemned by society as a whole, and every public employee and elected official should have a zero tolerance policy universally supported by school officials and parents alike,” Tapio said.

“We should not look at this as a criminal justice issue, but rather a failure to create a drug-free culture that teaches a purpose in life. The underlying problem of drug usage is not criminal activity, but rather an acceptance of a drug culture which offers little hope and no purpose to those who need it most,” Tapio said.

None of the legislators believe the state provides the proper tools to both punish and treat addicts.

“Minimum security treatment facilities managed by the state is the proper response to this situation. Numerous short stays in the county jail do not adequately address the problem,” Russell said.

“Adults go to prison. Juveniles get tried as adults or get outsourced to counseling, which isn’t working,” Goodwin said. “That’s where STAR Academy is needed.

“STAR Academy would meet the challenge for young offenders. The state is trying to sell off this facility that had a successful ‘program’ that worked for years. It turned a lot of problem teens into success stories,” Frye-Mueller said. “I believe faith-based counseling should also be a part of everyone’s recovery.”

“Educators, law enforcement and the criminal justice system are in near unanimous agreement that Senate Bills 70 and 73 have failed to provide proper punishment because of the lack of teeth in the presumptive probation process,” Tapio said.

“We have taken the discretion away from judges and have tied their hands behind their backs by removing necessary options like STAR Academy, a life-skill training facility designed to remove troubled children from troubled home environments and from schools where they can become a danger to those around them,” Tapio said.

“The current system takes God and the human connection out of a solution to bad behavior and drug addiction. The most important ingredient to turning a person’s life around is to provide hope and purpose to life,” he said.

“The second most important ingredient is to develop a human connection with troubled children that includes a simple thing like a hug. A state institution is not allowed to talk about God and the ultimate purpose in life, and state employees are not allowed to touch another human being,” Tapio said.

“We must build programs for troubled children and families on the model espoused by an organization called Teen Challenge. Its God-centered approach teaches purpose to life,” he said.

Russell said there may be options for drug offenders, “however, the court system through sentencing is the only way some of our citizens will acquire the assistance they need.”

He said the drug courts and 24/7 programs are not working. “If they were highly effective, we would not be experiencing an ever-increasing problem.”

Goodwin does not believe the state provides suitable treatment programs, either.

“Absolutely not. That’s where STAR Academy is needed. Once it closed, all we have are outsourced counselors,” he said.

Tapio said there are many options for addicts to get help within the state.

“However, once addicted to drugs, the only solution comes from within. A person must want to get help before they can be helped,” he said.

“The best solution should be early interdiction. Local communities and schools need to have zero tolerance drug policies. We should all agree that a drug lifestyle is unacceptable, and I would propose drug testing for teachers and students as a condition of employment and school participation,” Tapio said.

He added that any addiction treatment should be God-centered and purpose-driven.

Tapio doesn’t believe the drug courts and 24/7 programs are working.

“No. Conceptually, drug courts are a good idea. However, when presumptive probation is the alternative, defense attorneys realize the alternative to drug courts is an easier option than drug courts themselves,” he said.

Russell said the reasons more lengthy drug treatment is not available is because “the governor has not prioritized treatment in the state corrections system.

A complaint he hears from lawyers and area law enforcement in the area is that “the problem is increasing with no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Goodwin said, “Drug courts and 24/7 testing is great, but since the STAR Academy closure, there isn’t any place to send users for treatment.”

Goodwin had a different take on why more lengthy treatment is not taking place.

“My intel is that the state knows it was a mistake closing STAR Academy and wants to build a new facility in the Sioux Falls area at a taxpayer cost of $55 million,” he said.

Goodwin said the state’s attorneys, high school counselors, principals and superintendents he has talked to “all agree that we need a treatment facility.”

Frye-Mueller said lawyers and law enforcement people she has talked with “want it (STAR Academy) back open to be able to send young offenders to a facility such as this for a better option than jail.”

She advocates “making sure the penalties are tougher for bringing drugs into our state, which would hopefully deter drug dealers from coming here. Their consequences should be going to prison for an extremely long time.”

Goodwin also advocated “locking up the drug kingpins and dealers so that there is a real deterrent against pushing drugs in South Dakota. The users need a treatment facility of which STAR Academy is the turnkey answer,” he said.

Tapio had one word for why more lengthy treatment is not taking place in the state. Cost.

“Successful drug treatment facilities are intensive months-long in patient treatment facilities with large costs. One of the reasons these are successful for addicts is because they financially put a strain on the addicts’ family. There is a huge family pressure for the addict to change,” he said.

“Overwhelmingly, every person involved in this issue says there are no teeth in the system. Presumptive probation has taken away the discretion of a judge to make decisions in the best interest of the community,” Tapio said.

“The state has removed necessary options for judges and state’s attorneys to keep their communities safe.”