Serious juvenile crime rising, police say 'vast majority' of community are 'good human beings'

Sep. 10—A stabbing. A shooting. Two intentional fires. A death.

Serious juvenile crime is on the rise in Mitchell, but law enforcement officials say that the crime indicators shouldn't be used as a reflection on the community as a whole.

In 2019, Davison County State's Attorney Jim Miskimins saw 13 cases of serious juvenile allegations come across his desk. In 2020, that number more than tripled to 43. This year is on a slightly slower pace, at 27 through Sept. 8 — or one every nine days.

Miskimins said that the juvenile court system is designed to be less accusatory toward minors, and considers a "serious juvenile allegation" as any crime that would be prosecuted as a felony if the juvenile were an adult.

Some recent juvenile crimes in town have resulted in gunshot and stab wounds and deaths.

READ MORE: Juvenile crime stories in the Mitchell area

"It seems to me, based on my more than several years involved in the State's Attorney's office, that we have more violent crime today than we did years ago," Miskimins said.

Mitchell Police Chief Mike Koster said that while he can't attribute the rise in serious crime as a whole to a single reason, he noticed the severity began to increase as kids were sent home from school in March 2020.

"To speculate: loop (together) the stressors in folks' lives, the social disconnect with people — that took away that personal interaction," Koster said. "I think that you saw that across the country. And I think we're no different than anyone else."

Miskimins said the city saw a large spike in significant property crimes by juveniles about 11 weeks into online school.

Before 2015, almost all juvenile allegations would be handled in courtrooms, but South Dakota's Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Initiative — known to some in law enforcement as Senate Bill 73 — helped counties in the state free up their courtrooms from handling minor offenses like alcohol infractions.

"It was a very thorough and comprehensive amendment to our juvenile justice system," Miskimins said. "It created another tier to juvenile justice, that being a citation system for offenses like under age, possession of consumption of alcohol, and also to address truancy matters."

Davison County created it's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, to divert minor infractions away from courtrooms by providing alternative resolution methods.

The JDAI saw great success in its first year. It's coordinator, Katie Buschbach, estimated that around 95% of juveniles who went through the program last year completed it successfully. She estimated about 90% have completed it this year.

Miskimins said that under Senate Bill 73's guidance, the county has worked to find alternatives to placing kids in detention, in turn saving the county tens of thousands of dollars.

"What we've learned through ... social scientists that have studied these matters, is that there's a good reason to treat kids differently," Miskimins said, "and that is that their brains aren't fully developed and mature — especially the portions of the brain that that assist people with impulse control and other things of that nature."

In part, Koster said the police division makes an effort to increase community outreach by placing police officers in children's lives. This can occur in various forms, including employing school resource officers or forming police athletic teams to play pick-up sports games.

"Officers are encouraged at any opportunity to get out and visit with the kids and be that positive role model, be that positive influence," Koster said. "That currently is our biggest avenue to connect with those kids."

However, Koster cautioned that seeing reports of serious crime in Mitchell can shed a negative light on the community.

"You have those incidents that reach the media, and that's what gets the attention," Koster said. "It takes one news story to make (serious crime) a focal point."

What doesn't always get media attention, Koster said, is the daily demonstration of good behavior by most of the city's citizens.

"The community at large has an overabundance of very good people," Koster concluded. "You don't see the day-in, day-out behavior of the vast majority of everyone in town that are respectful of each other's rights and good human beings."

Miskimins offered a reminder that just because serious juvenile allegations are on the rise this year, doesn't mean it will be a permanent trend.