Officials in 10 counties mull over regional jail in Aberdeen


ABERDEEN (AP) – Officials are measuring the need for a regional jail in northeastern South Dakota.

Representative from 10 counties in the area, including sheriffs and county commissioners, were invited to attend a meeting in Aberdeen recently to consider an idea that Brown County Commissioner Duane Sutton first mentioned in November after he was re-elected to the commission. Since, he said, a couple firms have reached out and provided information.

“Our jail numbers keep going off the charts,” Sutton said. “We want to know who would be interested in doing this.”

Chief Deputy Dave Lunzman of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office said the county has simply run out of space. While the county was able to find housing for inmates in recent weeks, he said, space is also limited at those facilities.

“And, every time we send someone out, we need to bring them back,” he said. “We’re trying to find a solution. In my mind it is a regional jail.”

Lunzman said with its population, two hospitals and judges, Brown County is a logical site.

“Moving people around and not having places to go is inefficient,” he said.

Brown County State’s Attorney Ernest Thompson said the county jails are intended to provide the spaces necessary to hold people accountable, and state law is written in such a way that certain felony offenses come with the presumption of a probationary sentence. That means a suspended sentence and 30 days in jail.

Now, he said, the average jail sentence is 30 days, but when space is tight at the jail, it makes it hard to get a 60-, 90- or 120-day jail sentence needed in some cases, the Aberdeen American News reported.

Thompson said there was a lull in criminal cases in mid-2020 as the region grappled with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, case numbers have since picked up and he expects that to continue this year.

Each county has its own needs, however.

In Marshall County, Sheriff Damian Bahr said they have maybe two or three inmates at any give time. They’re housed at other jails because the local need just isn’t high enough to support a jail. Marshall relies on nearby county jails in Brown, Roberts and Day counties, he said.

“A regional thing would be good for all the smaller counties,” he said.

McPherson County Sheriff Dave Ackerman said the county hasn’t had a jail since the 1970s.

“Moving inmates is something we’re accustomed to,” he said, noting that area jails are seeing increases in their populations.

“Finding a place to call home is something that’s important to us,” he said.

Day County Sheriff Ryan Rucktaeschel said he agrees on the need for space. While he usually has room for the local inmates, he said, Day’s challenge is the age of its facility, which is about 50 to 60 years old.

His biggest challenge, he said, is finding space for women and juveniles because they need to be sound and sight separated from the other inmates. If he takes one woman, he said, he loses the use of his entire west wing.

In Walworth County, where the jail closed in October, Sheriff Josh Bohl said the typical housing need is anywhere from 10 to more than 30. Without a jail of its own, he said, Walworth is finding space elsewhere.

There are sections of state law that allow counties to enter into a joint agreement for the establishment of a regional jail. Staci Ackerman, executive director for the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, said there are four sections of state law that specifically deal with the concept. Three have been in place since 1986, she said.

“Legislators back then foresaw the need for a regional jail,” she said.

But she also noted the provisions lack detail and clarity.

While there isn’t any legislation pending in the state Legislature specifically addressing a regional jail, District 3 Rep. Drew Dennert, R- Aberdeen, spoke briefly on a bill that could just provide a new source of revenue for counties. That’s House Bill 1230, which proposes to redirect a percentage of the sales and use tax that is paid to the state and place that revenue in a capital improvement fund for county use.

According to that legislation initially 0.05% would be diverted, which would net about $578,803 for all counties to share. But the bill also includes a provision that the percentage increase by 0.05% each year until it reaches 0.25%, which would be in fiscal year 2026. By then, the projected revenue, shared among the counties, would be $3.5 million.

Dennert said counties in the area could tap that revenue and put it toward the construction of a regional jail.

As it’s written right now, he said, counties would have to make a payment request through the state. But he talked about amending the bill so the money would go directly to the counties for immediate use or to save for a specific use.

When one county commissioner noted a concern about ongoing expenses with the operation of jails, Dennert said the bill could also be amended to include operational costs of a jail.

The bill has several steps before approval. While it passed unanimously by the House Taxation Committee, it now goes before House appropriations for consideration.

Those in attendance were told the next step is to select a firm as an owner’s representative that can walk the counties through the process and conduct a needs assessment in all the counties. That representative would also provide cost estimates for the project.

District 3 Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, said if a funding request is to come before the Legislature, lots of work needs to be done in advance before the next session. It starts with knowing not only construction costs but the cost to operate the facility. With 12 legislators representing northeastern South Dakota and a total of 105 covering the entire state, Novstrup said, making contact with each of those legislators and having personal discussions to get support is important.

“If you don’t win the battle before it starts, you lose,” he said.

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