Repealing Presumptive Probation Divides Governor, Attorney General


State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg asked South Dakota lawmakers Tuesday to repeal presumptive probation for non-violent lower-level felonies, especially for drug crimes.

That’s what many citizens and law enforcement personnel told him they wanted as he campaigned last fall, Ravnsborg told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But it’s not what Governor Kristi Noem wants.

She sent staff from the state Department of Corrections and the state Bureau of Finance and Management to the hearing to speak against Senate Bill 19.

They said daily costs for serving 500-plus more inmates would total $8.7 million more per year, and additional space to house them would cost more than $30 million to build.

The two Republicans won their first elections to their current offices last year.

Presumptive probation is a policy the Legislature set in 2013 at the recommendation of Governor Dennis Daugaard and state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson.

The law recommends circuit judges sentence criminals convicted of non-violent class-five and class-six felonies, including many drug abusers, to probation rather than state prison.

Judges don’t have to follow the law, Laurie Feiler of the corrections department testified.

Feiler said judges each year since the presumptive-probation law was passed have sentenced to prison 20 to 24 percent of the felons who were eligible for presumptive probation. 

Senator Lance Russell is the panel’s chairman. The Hot Springs Republican apologized to Ravnsborg because a fiscal-impact estimate wasn’t done yet on a bill the attorney general pre-filed before the January 8 start of the legislative session.

Without the estimate, Russell said he had to delay the vote to Thursday. At least three or four members of the seven-senator panel appeared ready to support the repeal.

No one in the hearing room seemed to have an answer for a question from Senator Craig Kennedy. The Yankton Democrat asked how many class-five and class-six felonies had been committed since presumptive probation took effect.

Law enforcement officers and Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman called for the repeal. They testified county and city law enforcement budgets are taking a harder financial  blow.

Former lawmaker Don Haggar, now a lobbyist for the South Dakota arm of Americans For Prosperity, was an opponent. He said nobody gets better in prison.

“Do we want to spend money on prisons? Or education? Or health care?” Haggar asked.

Ravnsborg in rebuttal said he heard two sides Tuesday. “Proponents are about safety. Opponents are about costs,” he said. “We’ve pushed the cost from the state down to the counties.”

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