- Associated Press - Friday, February 22, 2019

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Senators have decided to keep in place South Dakota’s presumptive probation policy for some lower-level felonies, voting Friday to reject an expensive proposal from new Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to scrap the practice.

The Senate voted 18-12 against the measure, a top priority for Ravnsborg that legislative analysts predicted would cost more than $53 million over the next decade. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem had asked that lawmakers hold off on reversing the policy, citing the cost.

Ravnsborg acknowledged that the bill’s defeat is likely the end of his push this year, but said that doesn’t mean supporters won’t try again. He’s argued presumptive probation doesn’t work, saying in part that drug offenders have no incentive to work with law enforcement to turn in dealers because they know they’ll just be sentenced to probation.

“Obviously, the problem continues even though the bill went down,” Ravnsborg said after the vote. “We still have a meth epidemic in this state.”

The presumptive probation law requires judges to sentence people who have committed certain nonviolent, lower-level felonies - including drug possession and use - to probation rather than prison, unless there’s a “significant risk” to the public. The practice, part of a 2013 Republican-led justice overhaul, is credited with helping avert expensive prison population growth, but critics say it ties judges’ hands.



Republican Sen. Lance Russell, a bill supporter, said a day earlier that the overhaul is an “unmitigated failure.” GOP Sen. Stace Nelson unsuccessfully appealed to his colleagues to help authorities “protect South Dakotans.”

Supporters of ending presumptive probation contend it’s driven up county jail budgets across the state as judges send offenders to jail rather than state prison terms. Law enforcement representatives backed the change.

But Republican Sen. Arthur Rusch warned senators not to make the mistake of thinking that they could repeal presumptive probation and avoid building new prisons.

The legislative analysis predicted that repealing presumptive probation would result in more people getting sent to prison at an annual cost of nearly $4 million. Housing those inmates would spur about $14 million in one-time construction costs, according to the estimate. Noem’s administration projected far higher construction expenses and annual operating costs.

A 2016 report from the Urban Institute found presumptive probation and other changes played a major role in avoiding growth in the state prison population, and the latest state analysis credits the overhaul with saving taxpayers about $28 million. In an unusual alliance, local chapters of the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity have opposed the attorney general’s bill.

“Going forward, we are eager to continue working with policymakers to improve the treatment and rehabilitation options in our state,” Americans for Prosperity-South Dakota State Director Don Haggar said in a statement.

Ravnsborg said officials will go back to the drawing board and continue to “fight the good fight” for South Dakotans with their current tools. His platform also focuses on prevention, rehabilitation and bolstering work programs.

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