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Committee members say jail solutions need money, voluntary involvement

art for LEGE JAILS last mtg.jpg
State Senator Art Rusch, District 17, Clay and Turner Counties, and Senator Helene Duhamel, District 32, Pennington County

The South Dakota legislature’s interim study on regional jails has resulted in a number of potential solutions to the lack of beds in jails and prisons. Its last in-person meeting was held earlier this week. Now the committee will draw up its recommendations to the 2023 state legislature for possible action.

At the end of the last interim committee meeting, Senator Art Rusch was the first to speak. Rusch is a former prosecutor and retired judge, and he has served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rusch suggested that the legislature should encourage counties to voluntarily use regional jails. As an incentive, lawmakers should appropriate some amount of money. Rusch noted that $60 million was mentioned at some point during committee hearings.

He said counties who are interested in building a regional jail should apply to the state for funding, and the state should decide how to allocate the money.

“I’m reluctant to have the legislature get into a battle between the counties as far as deciding that specific dollar amounts should go to specific counties because I don’t know that we have the criteria,” he said. “And I don’t think that kind of decision should be made based upon who’s got the most political clout.”

Earlier in the day at this last interim committee meeting, a Lincoln County commissioner said the system of presumptive probation is clogging the jails, and the program should end.

Rusch said the committee didn’t hear from anyone who works with probationers, and before the legislature considers ending the program, it should have a fuller understanding of how it works.

Senator Helene Duhamel agreed.

“Part of why we have the problem, and it’s very complicated, is the state pen is crowded. That’s pushing people into the county jails. Everything is crowded,” she said.

Presumptive probation is offered to low-level felony offenders, and Duhamel said the program can’t just come to an end. “It’s easy to say three strikes and you’re out, but then where you going to put those folks?”

The interim committee considered and rejected county consolidation, and members seemed to agree that counties should not be forced to participate in a region served by one jail. They said some counties without jails are managing quite well.

Some committee members noted that a property tax freeze put in place in the 1990s is no longer working for county governments. Some said they’d cautiously consider a temporary sales tax increase for the limited purpose of county jail construction; others said they would not.

And committee members noted that finding employees to work at jails is going to be a problem anywhere in the state, but particularly in rural areas.

The committee will put together a proposal by late October and will post a draft sooner than that on the South Dakota Legislative Resource Council’s website.

After it’s posted, the draft can be found at: https://sdlegislature.gov/Interim/Committee/464/Detail

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