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Sales taxes & probation reform could create jail space

Joel Arends from video Tweet 1980x1080.jpg

A Lincoln County Commissioner says jail overcrowding has been exacerbated by reforms that favor probation rather than prison for low-level felons.

Joel Arends made his presentation to the interim legislative committee looking at creating regional jails and a statewide correctional plan. The committee held its fourth meeting in Pierre on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Arends said if the legislature doesn’t repeal presumptive probation, then counties need to be able to assess a sales tax, or the state needs to pay the cost of handling violations of state laws.

Lincoln County is number one in South Dakota and ninth in the nation for population growth.

Joel Arends said that growth is one of the factors driving an increase in his county’s need for jail space.

Another factor is criminal justice reform passed by the state legislature in 2013.

Offenders committing Class 5 and 6 felonies are given the presumption of probation rather than prison time. And offenders who are sent to the state penitentiary have a presumption of parole after they have served a certain percentage of their time and completed conditions set out for their rehabilitation.

When probationers violate the conditions of their sentence, Arends said they’re not being sent to prison. Instead, they go to jail.

Arends said that August statistics indicate 44 percent of the inmates in the Minnehaha County jail were already on parole or probation prior to their most recent arrest. Lincoln County currently contracts for beds in that facility.

“The bill was termed the ‘Public Safety Improvement Act,’” he said. “However, presumptive probation is jeopardizing the safety of our citizens now. It’s incentivizing repeat offenders, and most importantly, it’s shifted cost from the state prison system to county jails.”

Arends said the state legislature needs to repeal presumptive probation or give counties the tools they need to increase jail space.

He noted what other presenters have told the committee: the only revenue available to counties is property taxes or bonds, and neither resource is workable. Voters won’t approve bond issues, and property owners can’t afford to shoulder the entire burden.

And so, he said, the legislature must allow counties to collect sales taxes or use state revenue to cover the costs.

“We as a county are still responsible for prosecuting, defending, and incarcerating those who break state laws with only the use of county property tax dollars,” he said.

Arends told the committee that a sales tax would alleviate the burden on Lincoln County property owners by collecting money from shoppers who travel to the Sioux Falls area from other counties and other states.

He said by his calculations, with a half-penny sales tax, Lincoln County could have pulled in $58 million in one month alone.

Arends also noted that interest is a large part of the debt when a county uses bonds to pay for new jail space. He said as a result, the wealth of county taxpayers goes to the financial institutions issuing the bonds. With a sales tax, revenue is raised more quickly and can pay off the debt faster, resulting in less interest.

Arends said if the state legislature won’t allow sales taxes for jails, then it should consider creating jail regions, patterned after existing regional jail agreements and structured around judicial circuits. And he said state funding should be available as an incentive to counties who are weighing their options.

The interim committee is considering these and other solutions to chronic overcrowding in jails and prisons and will issue a draft proposal in two to three weeks.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.