State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg prevailed over Governor Kristi Noem on Thursday over the future of South Dakota’s presumptive probation law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-2 in favor of Ravnsborg’s legislation that would repeal the 2013 law. It directs that many lower-level felons be sentenced to probation rather than state prison.
The governor opposed SB 19 because it would mean hundreds more criminals guilty of Class 5 and Class 6 felonies would be put behind bars.
According to an official prison-cost analysis, if Ravnsborg’s legislation becomes law, state government would face an additional 282 inmates per year and would need to build 223 more beds.
The additional space would require nearly $14 million to build a second prison for women.
Caring for the additional female and male inmates would cost nearly $4 million annually, or about $40 million over the next 10 years.
Ravnsborg’s argument was that county commissions, local law enforcement officers and taxpayers are bearing the brunt of South Dakota’s methamphetamine crisis because criminals remain on the street.
Senator Stace Nelson, a Fulton Republican, called on the panel to support Ravnsborg’s repeal.
“I think this is a necesssary change,” Nelson said.
Senator Art Rusch, a Vermillion Republican who is a retired circuit judge, voted against it. Rusch said 28 percent of lower-level felons were going to prison before and 16 percent since presumptive probation took effect.
“So it isn’t a huge change in the proportion of people that are going to prison,” Rusch said.
Senator Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican and a former state’s attorney in Day County, said the current situation is the latest chapter in a long-running disagreement between county prosecutors and state officials.
“I think that Senate Bill 70 (the 2013 legislation) sounds a lot like it was an excuse to duck the public responsibility on the state’s part of doing their job in that tension,” Schoenbeck said.
He said the state Bureau of Finance and Management’s estimate that 25 percent more people would go to prison meant state officials were “disserving” the public.
“If we don’t pass this bill,” Schoenbeck said, “then it’s just kicking the can down the road, and the local law enforcement are stuck with people that shouldn’t be in their community any more.”
He added, “I think presumptive probation has become a lazy excuse for not doing our job on providing appropriate alternatives. And if we pass this bill, we are putting a gun to the head of the state saying, ‘You’ve got two choices here. Either you provide alternatives that work or you’re going to build two new prisons.”
Senator Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat who formerly was the Yankton County state’s attorney, opposed the repeal. He said it would cost $54 million to lock people away during the next 10 years.
“The other option as I see it we could take that amount of money and say rather than allocate this money to prisons and incarcerations, maybe we could take this money and allocate it to probation, treatment and options,” Kennedy said.
Senator Lynne DiSanto, a Box Elder Republican, said she previously worked with inmates for the federal Bureau of Prisons and the state Department of Corrections. She said people with backgrounds in mental-health services understand the meaning of “creating a crisis” where persons hit rock-bottom.
“And oftentimes that crisis is incarceration,” DiSanto said. “They’re going to lose their job. Their family’s upset with them. And there becomes a brew of things that are all happening that create a crisis in their life that forces them to say, ‘What road am I on? What am I doing here?'”
She said presumptive probation can be too soft. “You keep them in their communities, you keep them in their home, you keep them around their family, there’s no crisis created, things are too easy, their road continues to stay. They’re around the same people and they don’t have that crisis occurring.”
DiSanto added, “There is a flip side to getting these people help and that incarcernation may not be the only thing, they may need treatment also, but it actually does help often toward a first step towards seeing things differently.”
Senator Lance Russell, a Hot Springs Republican and a former Fall River County state’s attorney, said counties need a solution. “They can’t just continue to try and build jails in every community where we have a jail,” he said.
Russell said the state Department of Corrections “has done nothing but to exacerbate this problem” and getting budget information has “been like pulling teeth.”
He said the 2013 law didn’t save money. “It’s been nothing but a boondoggle. We’ve got a revolving door on the county jails. The judges — nobody — can handle what’s going on. The crime is astronomically through the roof.”
Russell added, “We have got to confront this issue. This (repeal) is the only mechanism we have been presented that is still alive (in the legislative process) that I think is viable for the counties.”
Presuptive probation was a mistake, according to Russell: “It would be dereliction of our duty if we do not pass this bill out of here today.”