The South Dakota Senate decided Friday that many lower-level felons should continue to be sentenced to probation rather than to serve prison time.
Senators voted 18-12 to reject legislation that would have repealed the state’s presumptive-probation law.
Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota’s new attorney general, wanted it repealed because law enforcement costs for counties have gone up significantly in recent years.
The Legislature in 2013 adopted presumptive probation and a long list of other reforms to slow down the flow of inmates into South Dakota’s prisons.
New Governor Kristi Noem opposed the repeal. Ravnsborg and Noem are Republicans.
An official estimate from the state Legislative Research Council predicted about 280 more inmates per year if the repeal passed. Caring for them would cost about $4 million annually, and a second women’s prison would need to be built for $14 million.
Senator Lance Russell lost the Republican nomination last year to Ravnsborg but strongly argued for the repeal Friday.
Russell, a Republican from Hot Springs, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that recommended the repeal on a 5-2 vote Thursday.
He said Friday repealing presumptive probation for many Class 5 and Class 6 felonies that don’t have aggravating circumstances was “the flagship” of Ravnsborg’s agenda.
“This is the attorney general’s best foot forward to try to do his job,” Russell said.
Senator Art Rusch, a Vermillion Republican who previously was a state circuit judge and has been on the state Corrections Commission, said new prisons would be “an inevitable consequence” of repealing presumptive probation.
Senator Ernie Otten, a Tea Republican, said jail costs in Lincoln County more than doubled since 2012 but didn’t know how he would vote. When the roll call came to him, Otten opposed the repeal.
“We need to look forward and fix the problem,” Senator Justin Cronin, a Gettysburg Republican, said. He too voted against the repeal.
Senator Jim Stalzer said law enforcement officials told him they wanted a repeal, while state judges in the Second Circuit that serves the Sioux Falls area wanted more help but didn’t plan to stop using presumptive probation. The Sioux Falls Republican voted for the repeal.
Senator Stace Nelson said releasing lower-level felons on presumptive probation led to more crimes by many. “This isn’t whistling Dixie,” the Fulton Republican said. He voted for the repeal.
“The help they (county governments) need is funding for alternatives,” Sen. Craig Kennedy said. The Yankton Democrat added, “We’ve got the ability to provide that.” He voted against the repeal.
Senator. Al Novstrup said he would vote for the repeal. The Aberdeen Republican said he wanted to take care of felons once rather than multiple times, and more of them could receive rehabilitation services in state prisons than in regional jails.
Here’s how senators voted Friday:
Yes — Rocky Blare, R-Ideal. Bob Ewing, R-Spearfish. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City. Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs. Jim Stalzer, R-Sioux Falls. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford. Margaret Sutton, R-Sioux Falls. Jordan Youngberg, R-Madison.
No — Jim Bolin, R-Canton. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center. Justin Cronin, R-Gettysburg. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge. Troy Heinert, D-Mission. Craig Kennedy, D-Yankton. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls. Kris Langer, R-Dell Rapids. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel. Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls. Ernie Otten, R-Tea. Jeff Partridge, R-Rapid City. Art Rusch, R-Vermillion. V.J. Smith, R-Brookings. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls. Jim White, R-Huron. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City.
Excused — Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls. Lynne DiSanto, R-Rapid City. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City. Susan Wismer, D-Britton.