Public safety, election law highlight second 'Signing Week' in legislative interim
“It's been great to see the support from the Legislature this year on backing up that type of investment," Gov. Kristi Noem told reporters days after approving $400 million in prison investments.
PIERRE, S.D. — Two-hundred fourteen bills passed the South Dakota Legislature during the 98th session.
As of March 23, it's a fitting case of "that's all she wrote" finality on the session, with 209 of the proposals signed and five vetoed by Gov. Kristi Noem.
Since lawmakers adjourned for a two-week break on March 9, Noem has signed 83 bills.
Lawmakers will reconsider Noem's vetoes on Monday, March 27.
The batches of bills considered during these two "Signing Weeks" offer an overview of the themes that played second fiddle to tax cuts and social issue fireworks in Pierre during the legislative winter, namely public safety reforms, workforce tweaks and changes to election laws in the state.
The most significant of these categories is public safety, where lawmakers made generational investments into the state’s prison system: $112 million in planned spending this year, about half to build a women’s facility and the other half for the design and land purchase associated with a men’s facility near Sioux Falls, as well as around $280 million in reserve dollars put aside for building the men’s facility in the near future.
“I think the biggest challenge that we've had is the amount of investments that need to be made into our facilities,” Noem told reporters at a Sioux Falls stop on March 22. “It's been great to see the support from the legislature this year on backing up that type of investment.”
She added that more space would allow the state’s correctional system to build out programming like addiction treatment and job training, which is currently limited in overcrowded facilities.
Even some of Noem’s most outspoken critics, like Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, have praised the governor for leading on these investments.
“She ought to crow about what we’re doing with prison construction,” Schoenbeck said during an appearance on “The Scouting Report,” a podcast from The Dakota Scout, an independent political news site in the state. “For 50 years, governors have been too chicken or too cheap to do anything about it, and it’s happening in her administration.”
Lawmakers also made significant changes to the state’s parole system, with a “truth in sentencing” bill raising the percentage of a prisoner’s sentence that must be served prior to a parole hearing in several types of violent crimes.
According to Department of Corrections data, just over half of the parolees in the state either violate their parole conditions or commit a new crime, though the former is much more common than the latter. Currently, about 3,000 people in the state are serving parole; about 470 of these are “absconders,” meaning their whereabouts are unknown.
“A very large percentage of violent crimes, in fact, are committed by an extraordinarily small percentage of the population,” Sen. Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls, a new lawmaker who served as prime sponsor of Senate Bill 146, said. “And those are the violent criminals that our constituents want to see locked up.”
Since 2014, violent crime in Sioux Falls has risen almost 40% when controlled for population, with most of that rise driven by increases in aggravated and simple assaults.
In many cases, violent crimes previously eligible for parole will now be served in full. Opponents of the law noted that this may simply lead to judges shortening sentences and could make reoffending rates even higher due to less of a transition period from prison into wider society.
Despite worries about the law’s shortsightedness and potential to cause overcrowding voiced by lawmakers including Rep. Tim Reisch, of Howard, a former secretary of corrections in the state, the law cruised through both chambers with tough-on-crime messaging.
Other footnotes in the March 20 batch of public safety bills included a change to the definition of rape to add in consent provisions and a modification to how child witnesses can participate in courtroom procedures, especially in sexual misconduct and rape cases.
Later in "Signing Week," on Wednesday, March 22, Noem dotted her i’s and crossed her t’s on a set of changes to election law, which offered a glimpse of effective collaboration between more conservative and more moderate Republican lawmakers during the session.
All told, 12 election changes made their way into law this session — among them a ranked-choice voting prohibition, a bill to better test automatic tabulators and a proposal to enact post-election audits — many of them endorsed by legislative leadership in their “Stronger and Safer for 2024” package.
Throughout the session, lawmakers sold these changes as marginal tweaks to an election system already working well; with the 2024 election another session away, they argued that making changes now would allow time for implementation and an opportunity to legislate further next year.
“Voters asked for the Legislature to strengthen South Dakota’s election laws,” Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, wrote in a release reacting to Noem’s signings. “With these bills, South Dakota is the gold standard in the United States. We have dedicated election officials and strong laws to administer fair elections with accurate results.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.