Attorney general's probation rollback passes Senate

PIERRE (AP) – The South Dakota Senate on Tuesday narrowly passed Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's proposal to give judges the ability to send low-level felons to prison rather than probation if they don't cooperate with law enforcement investigations.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to address increasing rates of meth addiction and drug arrests in the state, but were split on whether tougher law enforcement or addiction treatment is the best approach. Ravnsborg's proposal comes from the “tough on crime” strategy. He argued that it would allow police to go after drug dealers rather than just users, but that increased addiction treatment is also important.

“This is a massive puzzle, and there's not just one piece that fixes it all," he said.

Gov. Kristi Noem is requesting $3.7 million in the state budget to bolster addiction programs and law enforcement for drug crimes.

The Republican attorney general's bill would allow judges to rescind presumptive probation, which stipulates that certain low-level felons be sentenced to probation rather than prison, if they don’t help with law enforcement investigations. Ravnsborg thinks that most people will cooperate with law enforcement, leading to more dealer busts.

But opponents of the bill were concerned this would mean parolees would be pressured into buying drugs in police stings, something they felt could be dangerous and detrimental to them overcoming their addictions.

Ravnsborg said that cooperation with law enforcement may include drug buys, but that they happen in a “controlled” environment with police nearby.

The attorney general in 2018 campaigned on getting rid of the program, but his efforts to do so last year failed in the Legislature after it was estimated the repeal would cost the state $54 million over ten years. Noem opposed that proposal.

The bill that senators passed on Tuesday would incarcerate an estimated 88 more people and cost the state $8.48 million over 10 years in prison and jail costs.

“At some point we need to realize that continuing to put money into building prisons, into locking people away as prisoners doesn’t really solve any problems," said Sen. Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat.

The bill cleared the Senate by just three votes. It will next be considered by the House.

The attorney general is pushing another proposal that would disqualify people from presumptive probation if they have more than two felonies in a 10-year period. That bill is still awaiting a committee hearing.