Local jails in South Dakota are outdated, overcrowded: Can regionalization help?
A new tool to allow neighboring counties to fund shared jails is on its way to the Senate after passing committee 7-1.
PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota state law puts the responsibility on funding and maintaining local jails in the hands of the state’s counties.
Yet with difficulties in passing jail-focused bond measures, attracting workforce and handling the swings in inmate populations, especially in rural areas, county jails in some parts of the state are becoming outdated, overcrowded and understaffed to meet this basic duty.
“There are several issues, part of it is the aging jails, our jails starting to fill up because of more serious crimes and we have mental illness and alcohol problems that require their own cell,” said Dave Lunzman, the sheriff in Brown County, the county at the center of the summer study. “And we don’t have room for the general population anyway, meaning we don’t have room for programs.”
By a 6-1 vote in the Senate Judiciary committee on Jan. 26, one potential way to solve the issue is on its way to the Senate floor.
The regional jail authority, a policy tool for groups of counties proposed by Senate Bill 74, seeks to solve the problem by allowing counties to regionalize the funding of these required jails, essentially using economies of scale to more efficiently fund and operate county jails.
"The basic premise is several counties come together to form a compact, jointly raise and pay off a bond issue and then set up a board [to run the jail,]" said Sen. Jim Stalzer, a Republican from Sioux Falls and the prime sponsor of the bill.
The issue of outdated and underfunded county jails was at the center of a summer study this past interim session. With no state dollars on the way, as some in the study had hoped, the central answer offered by the committee takes the form of a regional jail authority, modeled off the regional rail authority concept. That allows groups of political subdivisions, mainly counties, to work together to construct the expensive rail infrastructure that stands to benefit all of them.
Sen. Helene Duhamel is a Republican who outside the legislature works in corrections in Rapid City and sat on the regional jails summer study. Duhamel explained, with operating jails in only about one-third of South Dakota counties, regionalization is already happening, albeit in a disjointed process of single-county funding and a secondary inmate-by-inmate contractual system from counties without these facilities.
“We have to have tools for counties to do what they’re constitutionally required to do,” said Duhamel, who is a co-sponsor of the measure in the Senate. “It’s already regionalized, but we have to give these counties some way to finance these new facilities. I don't see this as new taxes I see this as spreading out the taxes.”
Another benefit of the bill touted by supporters is that, whereas current bond measures only help fund the construction of county jails, the regional jail authority can use tax dollars to cover the approximately 80% of lifetime cost associated with maintaining the jail. Raising these taxes would still require voter approval.
Representatives from the state’s Department of Revenue, one of two major opponents of the bill to testify at the hearing, laid out several concerns around the idea of a regional jail authority: they claimed it was duplication of the already-existing joint powers agreements, the potential breaking of the state’s uniform taxation system and the concern of an increase in property taxes.
This potential increase in property taxes is one funding mechanism for counties that enter into regional jail authorities; each political subdivision in the authority has the option to levy property taxes of up to $2.40 per $1,000 of home valuation to go toward the regional jail authority.
However, once the upfront facility construction cost is handled, Lunzman said a large regional jail can nearly pay for itself, as the federal government and even other state governments are often looking for available beds.
In terms of breaking the constitutional requirement that all property in the same class be taxed in a uniform manner, the law as written allows the authority to “designate a geographical portion of one or more member political subdivisions that, in the judgment of the authority, will be or have been benefited by a jail.”
Supporters of the bill point out that similar language is contained in the statutes governing regional rail authorities.
While there was no bow tied on that concern of breaking the state constitution, Sen. David Wheeler encouraged his colleagues to keep the idea moving through the process, where it could be tweaked.
“I think coming out of the summer study there’s a lot of support. Counties need help, and we’re asking the governor’s office, ‘Come with us, we have some things in the bill you want to fix, help us get it right,’” Duhamel said.
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.