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Coronavirus measures reduce county jail population 12% in past week
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Coronavirus measures reduce county jail population 12% in past week

The population of the Pennington County Jail has decreased by nearly 12% between March 11 and Friday, March 20, in an effort to prevent inmates and workers from contracting coronavirus.

“Our jail population numbers are way down and very deliberately,” said State’s Attorney Mark Vargo.

Vargo said it’s important for the jail to have some empty areas in case an inmate contacts COVID-19 and needs to be quarantined.

“We’ve been working collaboratively with all the stakeholders to really ensure the critical constitutional rights of our clients are protected and also trying to reduce the jail population so that our clients that are not going to be able to bond out pending their case are further protected as well as our staff,” Public Defender Eric Whitcher said.

There were 582 people in jail on Wednesday, March 11, according to Chief Deputy Brian Mueller. By Friday, the jail population was at 513, a nearly 12% decrease.

The jail population usually fluctuates by 5% from week to week, Mueller said.

Public health officials say the best way to prevent COVID-19 is to avoid large crowds and close contact with others and keep yourself and surroundings clean.

This is often difficult or impossible to do in jails and prisons, which house hundreds of people in close quarters, and have workers and new inmates — some from out of state — coming and leaving each day. And inmates have limited access to sanitation products. 

Timeline

Vargo said he, Whitcher and representatives from the sheriff’s office and Rapid City Police Department communicated March 12 and 13 to discuss how the criminal justice system should respond to the viral outbreak.

On March 16, the presiding judge of the 7th Circuit Court, which includes Pennington County, signed an order “to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Judge Craig Pfeifle didn’t directly say he’s trying to clear out the jail, but wrote several directives that if followed, would help lower the population.

For example, he said the Jail Population Review Team must review bond for all non-violent offenders and recommend release conditions for judges.

Defendants who don’t appear in court are sometimes arrested and jailed, but Pfeifle said those who fail to show up for misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges will be excused “for public health.”

Those on probation are also sometimes jailed or required to appear in court for violating conditions, but probation officers can now consider delaying sanctions, Pfeifle wrote.

The order says jailed defendants' cases must be prioritized over those who are living in the community, and an order by the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court suspended the state’s 180-day speedy trial rule.

Whitcher said he agrees with these orders because even though it's upsetting for free defendants to have their cases delayed, it’s essential to focus on the safety and constitutional rights of those in jail.

“The people who are most vulnerable are those who are in custody,” especially those who are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, he said. 

For inmates who won’t be released from jail, he said, the goal is to come to plea deals or conduct trials as soon as possible so they are either found not guilty and released, or convicted and sentenced. 

By March 18, the jail population decreased to 524 people, a nearly 10% drop from the week before.

Pfeifle personally freed three out of five defendants during a 9 a.m. arraignment hearing the next day. By Friday, the jail population was at 513.

Friday’s jail population was nearly 100 fewer people that the jail’s average daily population (ADP) of 612 last year. It’s closest to the ADP of 499 in 2016.

Changes

Vargo said his office is “asking law enforcement to consider citations rather than arrests” for low-level crimes when possible.

“We have long encouraged officers to utilize good discretion when deciding whether to issue a citation or make an arrest,” police spokesman Brendyn Medina said when asked if officers will be working to reduce arrests. “Obviously, this is a new factor to consider out of many, but we are extremely confident our officers are making good decisions in the best interests of public safety.”

Prosecutors are also “adjusting our bond requests accordingly,” Vargo said.

Vargo said his office will still request their usual bonds for people who have multiple DUIs, have a history of violent behavior, or are accused of a violent or sex crime.

But his office will request no or low bonds for people who “wouldn’t have normally” gotten out, such as those who failed to appear in court or broke multiple non-violent probation rules. “We’re taking some risk,” Vargo said.

Vargo said his office also worked with judges and “significantly reduced” the amount of pre-trial defendants and probationers attending the 24/7 drug and alcohol testing center.

Mueller said he doesn’t have statistics but agrees there’s “been a significant reduction.”

“24/7 sobriety testing has been a challenge during this time across the state as we bring a high volume of individuals together two times per day and have them blow through a preliminary breath tube at close distance with our staff and in close proximity to each other,” he said.

COVID-19 can be spread through respiratory droplets, which may be produced when blowing into a tube.

Some people are going to 24/7 less often, some are being monitored outside of the center through patches and bracelets, while others have been completely taken off the program, Vargo said.

Safety

The Care Campus and adult and juvenile jails worked with its medical staff to create detailed plans for preventing coronavirus and how to respond if someone contracts the disease, Mueller said.

"We do have high confidence in our medical team and our facilities, and we will continue to evaluate the situation," he said.

Inmates and Care Campus clients are screened before entering the facilities, and they all have free soap for hand washing, Mueller said. 

Sick call visits at the adult jail cost $5, but it’s free for inmates who can’t afford to pay. COVID-19 testing is free.

The adult and juvenile jails have temporarily ended in-person visits and on-site video visits from friends and family. They can continue to communicate with them through letters, phone calls and remote video visits. Adult inmates also have access to an email service.

The jails have not lowered or cancelled the cost of these services, Mueller said.

Lawyers, clergy and volunteers are still allowed in the jails. Inmate group programming and work programs — both inside and outside the jail — are continuing.

Whitcher said public defenders are transitioning to working at home, because if one of them tested positive for the virus, it would create a “reverberation throughout our entire office” since everyone else would have to be tested and quarantined.

“If we can’t go to court because of a quarantine for all of our attorneys, the criminal justice system would be severely impacted,” he said.

Defense lawyers are trying to limit in-person conversations with their clients and instead speak over the phone or meet in jail, which has booths with a glass divider.

Vargo said prosecutors are also working at home when not in court and are avoiding meeting with victims and other witnesses in person.

We’ve “virtually eliminated in-person witness interviews,” he said.

Social distancing is much more difficult for deputies, police officers and correction officers.

“We recognize that the specific public safety services we provide to the community makes it unfeasible to maintain the social distancing measures that other organizations are employing to mitigate the risk of exposure to this virus,” Medina and Mueller said in an email. “That said, our work must go on in order for the continued safety and well-being of the community.”

They said workers are keeping safe environments at the work areas and patrol vehicles, and the agencies have “plans to mitigate exposure as best as we can” if an officer or deputy comes across someone showing signs of coronavirus.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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