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Ravnsborg Says Ending Presumptive Probation Will Not Put More People in Prison

Jason Ravnsborg, reading up on how to tie a necktie.
Jason Ravnsborg, reading up on how to tie a necktie.

Incoming Attorney General (that seems to exaggerate it; can’t we say “Corporal”? “Ensign”? “Petty Officer”?) Jason Ravnsborg says he’s going to end presumptive probation, which means that instead of mandating that lower-level first-time felons get probation, judges will have the option to send some of them to prison.

That means more people will go to prison, right?

I do not believe that’s the case at all, I believe that it just gives the discretion back to the judges. It’s still up to the judges on the individual case to decide if the person needs to go or not, but right now, their hands are tied, and I believe that we have a lot of good men and women serving us on the judiciary, and I believe that their discretion should carry the day [Jason Ravnsborg, interview with Jerry Oster, “SD Attorney General-Elect Jason Ravnsborg Submitting Bills to the Legislature,” WNAX Radio, 2019.01.02].

Jason, saying “I believe” before every claim you make does not make it truer. And it’s hard to find a falser claim than the contention that ending presumptive probation won’t mean more people in prison.

In 2016, the Urban Institute reported that implementing presumptive probation and the associated reforms of 2013 SB 70 increased convictions while decreasing South Dakota’s prison population:

South Dakota’s prison population declined slightly in the two years after SB 70 was enacted and was 8 percent lower at the end of 2015 than experts had projected three years earlier. This brief summarizes the impact of the presumptive probation policy and felony reclassifications on the state’s prison population and public safety. Drawing on South Dakota’s data, we identified four major impacts from these policy changes in the two years following legislative enactment:

  • Judges used probation more frequently—the probation placement rate for offenses subject to presumptive probation increased from 69 to 80 percent;
  • Fewer people were sent to prison—new court commitments for offenses subject to presumptive probation were down 16 percent;
  • Prison terms were shorter for drug abuse and addiction offenses—sentence lengths for drug possession and ingestion were cut in half; and
  • More people were sentenced for felony offenses—convictions increased 26 percent, driven by an increase in total felony filings (14 percent) and convictions for drug possession and ingestion, Class 5 and 6 felonies subject to presumptive probation increased 77 percent.

South Dakota’s presumptive probation policy and felony reclassifications played a significant role in averting South Dakota’s prison population growth [Brian Elderbroom, Samuel Bieler, Bryce Peterson, and Samantha Harvell, “Assessing the Impact of South Dakota’s Sentencing Reforms,” The Urban Institute, May 2016].

Presumptive probation means fewer people in prison. Eliminating presumptive probation means more people in prison. Somehow our incoming Attorney General doesn’t see that simple, evidence-based fact. Welcome to the density of Jason Ravnsborg.


  1. Steve Pearson 2019-01-03 08:24

    Okay so we all get you do not like Jason. Much like any (R) but where is the proof that prison population will go up? Do you know for a fact that these judges will now send these offenders to prison rather than probation?

    I look forward to examples from these SD judges that show they are chomping at the bit for prison sentences instead of probation on said offenses.

  2. Ryan 2019-01-03 09:10

    It’s almost like this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.


  3. LS1 2019-01-03 10:12

    I shouldn’t be surprised that he can say something like this with a straight face, but alas I am. This statement, plus his claim that presumptive probation “ties the hands of judges,” are either an indication that he doesn’t understand the laws he’s trying to make or he’s just flat out lying.

    The presumption of probation is just that – a presumption. Judges can (and do!) deviate from that presumption all the time to send defendants to prison instead of to probation. All a judge has to do is make a finding on the record that a deviation from the presumption is warranted by various aggravating facts. Those facts aren’t even defined in statute – essentially, any reason a judge has to deviate is a satisfactory reason under the law.

    I look forward to the prison cost estimate on this piece of legislation.

  4. Porter Lansing 2019-01-03 10:26

    Ingestion? What Nazi-like place makes that a crime?
    – The way drug possession laws are set up in your state — and no other state in the country — is that a person needs only to fail a drug test in order to be charged with possession of marijuana, a Class I misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail and a $2,000 fine. That person does not need to have any other marijuana on them and does not need to be physically under the influence of marijuana.

  5. South DaCola 2019-01-03 10:53

    I am still baffled how this guy got elected. It truly shows the HORRIBLE coverage our MSM does covering the state constitutional candidates. It also shows how horribly the SDDP screwed this up. Sutton, Bjorkman and Seiler should have been campaigning as a team and put out all marketing and direct mail as a team.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-03 12:44

    Um, Steve: did you read the article? Did you read the Urban Institute analysis? Presumptive probation led to a lower prison population. Taking it away will undo that lowering effect.

    It’s like exercise: If you exercise, you lose weight. If you stop exercising, those pounds will come back on. It’s what we call simple logic, backed in this case by empirical evidence.

    Whether one likes or dislikes Ravnsborg has nothing to do with the groundlessness and ignorance of fact in his claim. But his claim does support my contention that he’s not qualified for this job.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-03 12:46

    Actually, South DaCola, the press did cover how unprepared Ravnsborg is for this job. The voters just didn’t pay attention, or disregarded that objective coverage in favor of the party label around Jason’s neck.

  8. Ryan 2019-01-03 12:59

    Porter, I actually agree with your sentiment regarding the ridiculousness of ingestion laws. I think the idea is similar to that for “consumption” crimes for underage persons who are under the influence of alcohol. It is common for minors to take breath tests and receive citations for underage consumption of alcohol regardless of whether or not they have alcohol in their possession otherwise.

    Who knows how long it will take, but sooner or later there will be a successful challenge to ingestion laws regarding drugs and they will need to be trimmed or eliminated, but for now, yes, this is the land of ingestion nazis.

  9. mike from iowa 2019-01-03 13:43

    Interesting and loooooooooooooooooooooooooong read about crime and punishment and how both political parties have been involved.

  10. Steve Pearson 2019-01-03 14:02

    Corey, yes I see that and understand that correlation. But I am also interested in seeing if Judges would follow suit or keep the direction. Personally I was not thrilled with judicial changes that happened during Daugaard especially in relation to juveniles. No teeth to truancy and other areas has made behavior dealings in SF public very very difficult. I know it’s not similar, just stating something.

  11. Dan 2019-01-03 14:27

    I think most of you are misunderstanding the power of the attorney general. He has ZERO authority over judges nor does is he able to make any laws. He can try all the cases he wants, it doesn’t mean the judges with side with him. He is just the top lawyer for the state nothing more.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-03 18:59

    Steve, the relation goes beyond correlation to causation. Provide that presumption, make probation the starting point, and judges responded by convicting more people but sending fewer to prison. Remove that presumption, and the system we had before returns, and that system was putting more people in prison. It’s just evidence. Ravnsborg gave no clear reason why his policy proposal and wish to sound tough somehow overcomes this specific and empirical result.

    Your statement is not unreasonable: if punishments don’t have teeth, they don’t work as well. If there’s evidence to that effect, then present it. But if you’re saying, or if Ravnsborg is saying, that we need too punish felonies more toothily and that removing presumptive probation adds teeth, then we have to conclude that he’s saying that we havve to punish people withj more than probation… and that means prison, and more people in prison.

    And he could make that argument with total consistency: “Hey South Dakota, presumptive probation was a bad idea. More of these felons need stricter punishment. So we’re going to encourage judges to make prison the default position again for those felonies. That will mean more felons will sit in prison for a while. That will raise our prison costs. But guess what: justice and public safety aren’t free. If we want to be safer and tougher on crime, this is the price we must pay.” I might still argue against that policy position, but at least it would be an honest position.

    Instead, Ravnsborg is trying to pretend that he can bring his tough guy act to Pierre (and invariably, guys who feel like they have to act tough are lacking some basic toughness), push all sorts of bills, and not acknowledge that his proposals have real price tags.

  13. leslie 2019-01-04 09:44

    SD Democrats could not have put forth a stronger group of candidates.

    Seiler is vastly experienced, of impeccable character, a true life-long professional ensounced in ethical methodology. Ravensborg has none of this.

    Ditto for Bjorkman. Dusty may have potential unless he stands up to Trump.

    Billie’s astounding story nearly displaced Noem in a very very close election in our little red state with a mere 150,000 registered Democrats.

    Ms. Means from Pine Ridge brought exemplary training, experience, character and name recognition together with the fire of youth and Native spirit. We can only hope she continues toward state office. Other tribal members stepped up to challenge the SDGOP aristocracy.

    SDDP stands for all of us of good conscience. Help us out!

    Trump Republican voters could care less about qualifications, only ideology. They are victims of GOP agenda stemming from Goldwater, 1964 power propaganda; carried forward by Gingrich/Reagan 1980; culminating in EB5/MCEC/IM 22 frauds and cons of Trump 2016 and Ravensborg 2018. Republicans own the current health care and immigration and trade and voter suppression and Russian collusion/election meddling/obstruction of justice and class/race division destroying USA Democracy.

  14. bearcreekbat 2019-01-04 12:59

    Dan, as a matter of fact you are underestimating the power of a prosecutor like the AG over a criminal prosecution and sentencing. On the surface it is true that the judge ultimately decides the sentence.

    Under the surface, however, a prosecutor makes charging decisions. These decisions can include using multiple charges for a single course of conduct, picking offenses with statutory mandatory minimum sentences and using sentencing enhancement statutes (such as prior offenses, gun possession, potential hate crime allegations, etc), all to encourage plea bargaining, and to tie the judge’s hands in sentencing by obtaining a conviction for a crime with a mandatory minimum sentence or mandatory sentencing range.

    The prosecution can also demand a “binding plea agreement” that sets the exact sentence and eliminates the judge’s discretion (although a judge can reject this type of plea and require the case to go to trial).

  15. Dan 2019-01-04 13:04

    Bearcreekbat, That isn’t the way it is “supposed” to work, however I do agree it happens.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-05 16:09

    Good point about prosecutorial power, BCB. I remember sitting in the courtroom when AG Jackley and Judge Portra talked about the proper sentence for Joop Bollen. The judge asked if the state wished to seek a stiffer penalty; the AG said no, and the judge said he was fine with that. Under presumptive probation, Jackley would have had to have worked to make that case, and Gaia knows nobody really wanted to work hard on EB-5. Take away presumptive probation, make prison the default setting, and the formula reverses. The judge would have asked the AG if he wanted to argue for a lighter sentence than the default. The AG would have had to exert himself to get that lower sentence.

    Just statistically, I can see how that pans out. Suppose out of 100 convictions, there are 50 where everyone involved will follow the path of least resistance. That’s the default. Under presumptive probation, a shrug from the prosector and the judge means probation. Under Ravnsborg macho plan, those same 50 cases go to prison.

    Theory and evidence say Ravnsborg is full of crap. Ravnsborg will need to explain to Senate Judiciary soon how he comes to his counterfactual and illogical conclusion.

  17. Tyler Vance 2019-01-07 18:06

    We need this guy to go awayi

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