A regional jail system, and not more taxing authority, are what cash-strapped counties need to overcome rising criminal justice costs.
At least that’s what lawmakers are saying this week as a measure to let counties implement their own sales tax was killed Monday, marking yet another year and another defeat for legislation aimed at equipping counties with more resources to absorb increased costs related to county courts and jails.
“This is one of those bills that’s either too late for its time or too early for its time, but it isn’t its time,” Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck said before his members voted 30-4 against House Bill 1053, which would have granted county commissions authority to pose a .5% sales tax to their voters.
The measure had cleared the House earlier in the month with 45 of 70 Representatives supporting.
Help from the state — or guidance anyway — could be on the way for counties, whose officials for years have raised concerns with the Legislature about a lack of available cash to prosecute, defend and jail people who break the laws other governments set.
Both Schoenbeck and House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, who don’t always see eye-to-eye, told the Argus Leader they anticipate a Legislative summer study on the topic of county jails with an eye toward establishing a regional jail system.
And that could result in what Schoenbeck envisions as multi-county compacts in which counties would be forced to partner with one another on long-term jail solutions.
In the Sioux Falls area, Minnehaha County opened a new $48-million jail in 2020 while its neighbor to the south, Lincoln County, for years opted to send its prisoners out of county.
But as the population in Lincoln County grew, so did its rent payments to other jail facilities. And now that its annual cost of housing inmates outside of the county has exceeded more than $2 million, Lincoln County officials are preparing to invest as much as $60 million in constructing its own jail.
For sparsely populated counties, though, it could take a Legislative directive to force collaboration, Schoenbeck said.
“We’ll say find your friends or your gonna get friends found for you,” he said. “I think that’s what you have to do … otherwise every county that doesn’t have a jail would just assume pay the day rate.”