Senate panel advances bill to shield jail inmate records from open records requests
The South Dakota Capitol Rotunda. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
A bill that would close the disciplinary records of jail inmates from public view advanced out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-1 vote Tuesday morning.
Senate Bill 53 closes what its sponsor calls a “loophole” in South Dakota’s open records law.
The current law closes disciplinary records for inmates, but defines “inmate” as a person in the custody of the state Department of Corrections. The definition does not include people in the custody of county jails.
“A lot of people confuse prison and jail and think it’s the same thing. It’s not,” said sponsor Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City. “We’re just clarifying that (the exemption) would include all correctional facilities.”
If Duhamel’s proposal becomes law, jail inmate records could only be released by court order.
It’s unclear how often the “loophole” may have been used by members of the general public or the media to access such records.
Jail administrators, like any custodian of law enforcement records in South Dakota, are already afforded wide latitude to deny record requests related to active cases.
The open records statute offers blanket exemptions to public review for documents “developed or received” by law enforcement agencies and “other public bodies” if the records are part of an investigation.
In practice, that means a request for a jail inmate’s disciplinary record could be denied if the record is tied to an ongoing case. Most long-term jail inmates in South Dakota are there awaiting trial.
After the Tuesday morning hearing on Senate Bill 53, Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said he doesn’t recall ever releasing jail inmate disciplinary records to the public.
Outside of the legislative session, Sen. Duhamel works as a public information officer for the Pennington County Jail, which is operated by the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
Another employee of that office, Jail Administrator Rob Yantis, testified in support of the measure.
When asked by Sen. Brent Hoffman, R-Sioux Falls, if the lack of an explicit exemption had ever led to the release of sensitive information in Rapid City, Yantis said he hadn’t ever released jail inmate records to the public.
Instead, Yantis reiterated that the law’s current verbiage makes it possible for such a release to take place. An exemption for inmate disciplinary records is “already in there, but it’s not completely clear that it also refers to jail,” Yantis said.
Hoffman was the lone no vote on the bill. After the hearing, Hoffman said via email that the lack of a clear need was one of two reasons he opposed it. The other reason is related to transparency.
“We already have 28 exceptions for citizen’s access to open records, and I’d like there to be fewer, not more,” Hoffman wrote.
Like most of his colleagues on the committee, Sen David Wheeler, R-Huron, did not express those concerns.
“It seems like a pretty straightforward update to the records statute to make sure that prisons and jails are treated equally,” Wheeler said.
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