The Senate Judiciary committee on Thursday, Feb. 21, by a 5-2 vote approved Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s Senate Bill 19, which repeals presumptive probation.
Implemented as part of a 2013 criminal justice overhaul, current statute requires judges to sentence offenders of nonviolent, low-level felonies — like drug use and possession — to probation, rather than prison, unless they pose a “significant risk” to the public.
Ravnsborg and other proponents say presumptive probation allows offenders to skirt consequences, reoffend and endanger the public. Opponents argue that increased prevention and rehabilitation efforts, rather than increased incarceration, is a better solution.
If the repeal passes, South Dakota could face an influx of new inmates in state prisons. Administrators say the prisons are already at or near capacity, and SB 19 would force the state to construct additional facilities.
Overall, in a fiscal analysis released by the Legislative Research Council on Thursday, repealing presumptive probation could cost the state an estimated $54 million over 10 years.
The council estimated that an additional 282 offenders would be sentenced to prison time who, under the current statute, would serve probation instead. The cost to house these inmates would be nearly $4 million per year, the council said.
And without enough beds for the potential new inmates, the council estimated that to construct additional facilities would cost nearly $14 million in one-time funds.
The council’s cost estimate is significantly lower than that of the administration. Brittni Skipper of the Bureau of Finance and Management on Tuesday told committee members that administrators estimate the influx of inmates would cost an additional $8.8 million annually. Skipper said the state would need to construct two new facilities -- men’s and women’s -- at a total cost of $33 million in one-time funds.
Sen. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, brushed off the cost concerns on Thursday, saying, “We don’t have a revenue problem in the state of South Dakota. We have a priority problem.”
Nelson said presumptive probation gives offenders a “pass” when they commit crimes, and makes it harder for law enforcement to use prison time as a bargaining tool if they’re attempting, for example, to get an offender to lead them to a dealer.
Sen. Craig Kennedy, D-Yankton, was one of two committee members to vote against SB 19. Rather than incarcerate more offenders, he said those state dollars could be better spent on prevention and rehabilitation programs like drug and mental health court. Offenders are more prepared to reenter society when they are rehabilitated, rather than imprisoned, he said.
“I don’t want to look backward” to before the 2013 overhaul, Kennedy said. “I want to look forward.”
Ravnsborg said following Thursday’s hearing that repealing presumptive probation is “is just one leg of the stool.” He said prevention and rehabilitation are also necessary to fight drug addiction.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem hasn’t outright said whether she would sign or veto SB 19, but she has said previously that she is concerned about the potential costs. She proposed in her January budget address spending a total $4.6 milion in anti-methamphetamine efforts, including an addiction awareness media campaign, in-school education and addiction treatment.
When asked about Noem’s hesitance, Ravnsborg said, “We both want the same thing, which is safety for South Dakotans.”