Debate over money for new state prison in Sioux Falls elevating next week in Pierre
$300 million for penitentiary, improving county jails and stricter sentencing among public safety issues to be decided during the final days of the session.
PIERRE, S.D. — Though not yet as widely discussed as the tax measures and cultural issues dominating headlines, public safety has become a major undercurrent in the legislative session, with potential changes coming to both the state’s facilities and processes in dealing with its criminal population.
For Republican leadership in the legislature, that conversation begins with over $400 million in proposals to inject state funds into improvements to state and county prison infrastructure.
On top of a proposal from a group of lawmakers that would put $50 million in grants and loans toward helping counties with jail funding, Gov. Kristi Noem in her budget proposal is looking at earmarking $60 million toward building a new women’s facility in Rapid City and nearly $300 million in transfers from state funds and reserves to begin saving for a new maximum-security men’s facility in Sioux Falls.
Each of those proposals, and how they fit into the overall budget, is set to be vetted by the Joint Appropriations Committee beginning next week, when baseline revenue estimates for the coming fiscal year are set. But prisons may be toward the front of the line compared to the dozens of other spending bills looking for a piece of record revenues.
“The thing that I've been reminding my caucus is that [prisons] are a real core obligation of state government. There are a lot of budget items that are in committee that are nice ideas if we have money to do them; maybe this would be helpful, maybe we should explore creating this new program,” House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, of Pierre, told Forum News Service. “The only guidance that I would say would be coming from leadership to the rest of the caucus is that we have to focus on our priorities and keeping the public safe, and having adequate facilities within our prison system is one of those obligations.”
But updates to aging and overcrowded infrastructure are not the only changes being floated to how South Dakota deals with its incarcerated population. In the Senate on Feb. 8, a proposal to make sure violent criminals serve more of their time in prison rather than on parole passed the chamber 32-3.
“I think that one of the profound impacts this bill could have is it would stop the re-victimization of South Dakotans during that original sentence of the judge, the defense attorneys and the defendant agreed to,” Daniel Haggar, the state’s attorney in Minnehaha County, said during a hearing on the bill earlier this week.
Senate Bill 146, brought to the chamber by Sen. Brent Hoffman, of Sioux Falls, would make offenders who commit certain violent crimes ineligible for parole, though credits for good behavior could still be put toward increased privileges in prison. It would also require certain lower-level violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentence.
At the moment, depending on the type of offense — violent or non-violent — and how many times the individual offender has been incarcerated, parole hearings can be set anywhere from 25% to 75% of the way through the sentence, all the way up to Class C felonies such as rape in the first degree. The most significant crimes, Class A and Class B felonies, are not eligible for parole.
Hoffman, whose district lies in the Sioux Falls suburbs and exurbs, pointed to a protracted spike in violent crime in Minnehaha County over the past decade, an increase he ties to the location of the men’s penitentiary in the heart of the city, which he says causes often violent, repeat offenders to spend their time on parole in Sioux Falls.
From 2012 to 2021, the violent crime rate in the city increased by around 50%, from 4 to 6 per 1,000 people.
“It's certainly an issue that is, if not at the top, one of the top issues that we're hearing from almost all of our constituents,” Hoffman told Forum News Service after the bill’s passage.
Attached to Hoffman’s bill is an expected cost estimate of around $21 million in extra general fund expenditure on corrections, though the total does not account for inflation. These prison cost estimates are likely on their way toward being abolished after this session due to criticisms of inaccuracy, meaning the exact figure is unclear.
Still, Hoffman argued that a combination of the stagnating total prison population and the planned investment in upgrading prison infrastructure means a gradual phasing-in of more stringent parole policies starting this year would be something the state can manage.
Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, the lone Republican in the chamber to oppose the bill, explained that parole is one of the only “carrots” in South Dakota’s incarceration system that encourages good behavior while in prison. Parole can also act as a way to manage the transition from prison back into society, he argued.
“The federal system abolished parole a few decades ago. But when they did that, they put in a comprehensive system — supervised release — so that there was still supervision once they got out. We don't have that in this bill,” Wheeler, an attorney by trade, said during his remarks on the floor. “In section one, if you are convicted of one of those offenses, and you are given a maximum sentence, one day you are in prison, the next day you are out. There is no transition.”
He added that judges currently sentence with the parole structure in mind, and may adjust their sentences to be shorter now that more time is required to be served, numbing the law’s effect.
But Hoffman and others who voted in favor of the bill say it’s not intended as a one-track solution, and several lawmakers are hopeful that investments in incarceration facilities and lengthier sentences for violent criminals can be matched with continued improvements to programming and staff pay.
Despite an admitted reluctance to the bill, Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat representing downtown Sioux Falls, spoke on the floor in favor of the proposal, which he saw as beginning to address the “number-one issue” in his district.
“We need to make sure we take care of our Department of Corrections,” Nesiba said to qualify his support. “I think that part of [a rise in crime] is a result of being seriously understaffed and underfunded for the last several years. The kind of rehabilitation and programs that we want them to do haven't been done because they simply don't have the staffing to do it. And so this isn't enough.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.