Truth in sentencing cost: $21.5 million

Estimate for parole reform comes as repeal of mandatory cost reports moves forward

By: - February 8, 2023 11:54 am
Images from a cost estimate for Senate Bill 146, which would restrict parole for violent offenders in South Dakota.

Images from a cost estimate for Senate Bill 146, which would restrict parole for violent offenders in South Dakota. (Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

Lawmakers sent a bill to the governor Friday that would repeal mandatory prison-jail cost estimates, but not before one of the last such estimates landed in their laps with a $21.5 million thud.

The House and Senate have both approved a bill to repeal a rule that requires a prison-jail cost impact statement for any proposal that would put more people behind bars.

House Bill 1003 also has an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect with Gov. Kristi Noem’s signature, rather than on July 1, like most new laws.

The bill was delivered to Noem on Friday, but that wasn’t soon enough to prevent a cost estimate for one of the most significant public safety proposals on offer in Pierre this session.

Truth in sentencing bill advances to full Senate

Senate Bill 146 would keep violent offenders in prison for their full prison term for committing 13 of the state’s most serious crimes. Inmates convicted of 10 other violent crimes would need to serve 85% of their terms before a chance at parole.

The Legislative Research Council’s prison-jail cost estimate for SB 146 landed this week. Without adjusting for inflation, the “truth in sentencing” bill would cost taxpayers $21.5 million over 26 years, the estimate says.

SB 146’s sponsor, Sioux Falls Republican Brent Hoffman, cited some non-financial figures from the LRC document on Tuesday, the day the senator’s bill sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-1 vote. 

Hoffman told committee members that inmates serve about a third of their sentence for the most violent crimes, and that his proposal “attempts to address that incongruity.”

The senator did not mention the total cost. 

Lawmakers want to ditch criminal justice cost estimates

The issue did come up, however. Justin Bell, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told the committee that states implementing a truth in sentencing system typically see spikes in prison populations.

“Other states show a massive increase in prison populations after bills of this nature pass,” Bell said. “And I think the proponents will say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the point, right? I mean, we want to put more people in who are committing violent crimes. But we are, right now, as everyone on this committee knows, looking a lot at prisons and the cost of prisons.”

Bell was referencing the cost of a $60 million proposal for a new women’s prison this year, as well as a move to replace the South Dakota State Penitentiary in the near future.

Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead did not testify on behalf of SB 146, but he did tell South Dakota Searchlight recently that the public safety payoff for longer prison terms is worth the investment.

The $21.5 million figure comes with significant caveats. The estimate is based on several assumptions on the future behavior of judges. One of those assumptions is that judges would suspend around half of their sentences for the violent crimes mentioned in the bill, for example. It also assumes that those eligible for early release would earn it, and that those released early would behave and avoid returning to prison. 

Beyond that, the number of years covered by the LRC opens the estimate up to scrutiny. Department of Corrections Secretary Kellie Wasko, speaking on DOC population estimates in the Joint Appropriations Committee last week, told lawmakers that she doesn’t put much stock in estimates that stretch further than five years because so much can change.

Wasko has not staked out a position on SB 146, but her comments speak to one of the reasons lawmakers have pushed to do away with the prison-jail cost estimates in the first place.

The estimates are wildly inaccurate, according to House Speaker Hugh Bartels, R-Watertown, and Senate President Pro Tem Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, who sponsored HB 1003 in their respective chambers. 

“You never get any good information out of them. If you’re not getting anything out of them and it’s taking staff time, it just slows up the work,” Bartels said in January.

The law requiring prison-jail impact statements may change soon, but the law isn’t the only path to an LRC report on a bill’s potential price. 

Hoffman said he never intended to avoid a fiscal estimate for his bill. He told South Dakota Searchlight on Wednesday that if the governor would have signed the repeal of obligatory prison-jail cost estimates before his bill received one, he would have requested a fiscal note from the LRC and gotten “the same result.”

The fiscal note follows the same spirit and intent, without the bureaucratic requirement,” he said.

Here’s the full cost estimate document for SB 146.

Senate Bill 146 cost estimate




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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.