South Dakota lawmakers reject anti-probation-only measure

March 4, 2020 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — An unusual coalition of South Dakota Democrats and conservative Republicans narrowly rejected a bill Wednesday that would have barred people convicted of low-level drug felonies from receiving probation-only sentences if they refused to cooperate with law enforcement.

The bill, which was backed by the state’s conservative Republican attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, was narrowly passed by the state Senate last week but was voted down by the House Judiciary Committee on a 8-5 vote.

Lawmakers are searching for ways to curb what they describe as an epidemic of meth addiction in South Dakota, but they disagree on whether the state’s limited funds would be better spent on treating addiction or locking up users.

Ravnsborg is a critic of the state’s presumptive probation program, which requires that people convicted of certain low-level drug felonies be sentenced to probation rather than prison. He argued that the program encourages users to not cooperate with law enforcement and hampers his ability to go after drug dealers.

“I believe we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem, but I also believe we cannot treat our way out of this problem,” he told lawmakers Wendesday’s vote.

But lawmakers who rejected the measure felt otherwise, including some who worried about the cost of imprisoning more drug users. According to an estimate from the Legislative Research Council, if the bill became law, it would have led to about 88 more people going to prison at a cost to the state of $8.48 million in incarceration costs over 10 years.

Conservative groups, including the American Conservative Union and Americans for Prosperity, and liberal ones, including the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the bill, saying incarceration isn’t the answer to addiction.

Public defenders also opposed the measure, saying it would threaten the safety of low-level drug offenders who would be pressured by police into taking part in drug stings. Eric Whitcher, the director of the Pennington County public defender’s office, said the state already has the nation’s toughest drug laws and that he thinks state funds would be better put toward treating addiction. He said the charge his office most often sees is meth possession.