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AG's presumptive probation repeal fails to pass South Dakota Senate

PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota attorney general’s landmark legislation of the year, the repeal of presumptive probation, has failed to pass the Senate.

Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s Senate Bill 19 would have repealed presumptive probation, which requires judges to sentence low-level felony offenders to probation rather than prison. The Senate on Friday, Feb. 22 voted against the bill by a 18-12 vote. Five senators were absent due to inclement weather.

The policy only applies to Class 5 and 6 felonies, such as drug use and ingestion. Judges are able to surpass it and sentence an offender to prison time if he or she poses a significant risk to the public.

Ravnsborg has argued that presumptive probation weakens law enforcement’s and the courts’ power in investigations and prosecutions: Investigating officers can’t strike a deal with offenders if, for instance, they divulge who their drug dealer was, people are more likely to commit crimes or reoffend if they know they can’t be imprisoned for them, he said.

Several senators, as well as Republican Gov. Kristi Noem previously, voiced concerns over SB 19’s projected cost. Legislative staff estimated that repealing presumptive probation would cost the state an extra $4 million per year thanks to the ongoing cost to house additional inmates.

Additionally, the Department of Corrections has said that the state’s current facilities are at or near capacity and cannot accommodate more inmates. Legislative staff estimated that to construct additional facilities would cost the state $14 million.

The total estimated price tag of SB 19 was $54 million over 10 years.

Ravnsborg said that costs have been pushed down to the counties anyway, as judges sentence offenders to county jail terms, rather than prison. He said repealing presumptive probation would lift the unfunded mandate created by presumptive probation off the backs of local governments.

Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Craig Kennedy, D-Yankton, agreed that local governments need relief, but said that relief doesn’t come by imprisoning more people. Instead, he said state dollars can be better spent by funding treatment programs and enhancing probation.

Presumptive probation was just one part of a criminal justice overhaul passed by South Dakota in 2013. The intention of presumptive probation was to save the state money in prison costs and shift the dollars toward prevention and rehabilitation programs, but legislators say the latter promise was never followed through.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t provide it now,” Kennedy said. “Stepping backwards, in my opinion, is the wrong way to go. We need to look forward to make South Dakota a better place.”

Noem proposed in her January budget address allocating $4.6 million in Fiscal Year 2020 toward education, enforcement and treatment to combat the increasing presence of methamphetamine in the state.

Ravnsborg said following Friday’s vote that “even though the bill went down, we still have the meth epidemic in this state" and "the system does not work."

“We’ll go back to drawing board and continue to fight the good fight for the people of South Dakota,” Ravnsborg said. “We would obviously have preferred to have another tool added back to our toolbox, but we will still do...everything we can do to keep South Dakota safe.”

Ravnsborg said he doesn’t foresee the repeal making a comeback this legislative session, but plans to further discuss it with Noem and potentially try again next year.

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