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$1.75M grant a boost for criminal justice reform

America’s criminal justice system is far from perfect. In Pennington County and Rapid City, the situation is no different.

But on Wednesday morning, funding for much-needed local reform was given a major boost when the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and 7th Circuit Court were awarded a $1.75 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a more than $100 million nationwide initiative to reduce overincarceration in America’s jails.

Pennington County was one of eight counties selected out of a pool of about 200 jurisdictions in 45 states and territories. It was by far the least populated county to receive an award. Other counties receiving awards include large cities such as Boise, Idaho, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, Tenn., and Portland, Ore.

Over the past two years, the foundation has awarded Pennington County about $500,000 as “seed money” for initiatives including the Young Adult Diversion program. To date, that program has diverted almost 300 eligible defendants ages 18-25 from the criminal justice system to other forms of rehabilitation such as community service and educational programs.

The Rapid City Police Department has implemented a shoplifting cite and release program, issuing citations to more than 800 people as opposed to arrest and detainment. At the same time, the county and city began the Safe Solutions Program, which diverts intoxicated people away from arrest and detainment and into a sobering center with detoxification services, with 1,517 referrals made in the last six months of 2016.

That program and others —  including community outreach to the Native American population, increased attorney presence at defendants' initial court appearances to secure lower bond requests, expediting judgments and decreasing pretrial detention periods through streamlined procedures by the court and State’s Attorney Office — have demonstrated the area’s progress and promise for more in the future.

“We recognize that one of the reasons I think we’re funded is that we have a disparate impact on our Native American community in terms of incarceration here,” 7th Circuit presiding judge Craig Pfeifle told the Journal in an interview.

Though Native Americans compose around 10 percent of the county’s population, they represent approximately 51 percent of the daily jail population, according to a joint news release from the police department, sheriff's office, 7th Judicial Court and the Safety and Justice Challenge.

Many of those arrests could be avoided, too, with nonfelony arrests representing 70 percent of arrests in Pennington County, signifying an over-reliance on incarceration for low-risk, nonviolent offenders and exacerbating a jail system already under duress.

In 2014, the average daily inmate count in Pennington County’s jail was 434, nearly nine times the count of 51 in 1970. Additionally, in May 2016, 56 percent of the jail’s population was composed of defendants simply awaiting trial proceedings.

The overarching goal of the various programs underway and to be implemented is to reduce the local jail population by 20 percent to 24 percent over the next two years.

Policymakers hope initiatives like the Safe Solutions Facility — which will move into the county’s new health facility at 200 Kansas City St. when it’s completed in spring 2018 and increase its number of beds from seven to 42 — will help achieve this end.

Funds will also be used to jump-start a risk assessment program to prevent situations like Crystal Pumpkin Seed, who sat in jail for 48 days in 2015 because she couldn’t post her $100 bail.

By analyzing defendants' flight risk, propensity for violence, the nature of the offense and their criminal background, determinations can be made as to whether to detain or release the person with some sort of monitoring like an electronic bracelet or periodic alcohol/drug testing. The county estimates it costs about $80 per day to house an inmate in its jail.

“We have a certain population in our community that churns through all of our systems, and what’s the most efficient and effective way to deal with them?” Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said in an interview. “I think these are some of the initiatives to help address that.”

Eric Whitcher, director of the public defender's office, agreed.

“This initiative is so exciting because it’s great for taxpayers, it’s great for people, it’s great for a reduction in crime and we’re looking for ways to use the criminal justice system in a smart and efficient way,” he said.

Turning away from the numbers, Whitcher noted the brutal toll the criminal justice system can take on people’s lives for nonserious crimes. He pointed to a recent study that found that as little as three days in jail increases, rather than decreases, a person’s chance of returning to jail in the future.

“We represent these folks and we watch their lives be so devastated by even a short period of time in jail, and oftentimes they lose their job, they lose their housing, they don’t know where their children are,” Whitcher said.

Thomas Raymond, a member of the police department's Community Advisory Committee, said he’s seen firsthand the compassion of people like Pfeifle and Thom, and hoped that the community would notice that in the future, too.

“The real aspect is the humanity of things,” he said of the initiatives currently underway and planned for the coming months and years. “We need to do something to help people help themselves because we can’t do it for them.”

In time, he hopes, the community’s perception and fear of law enforcement will subside and evolve into appreciation.

“It’s about breaking down that barrier,” said Raymond, who is also a former police officer and sheriff's deputy. “It (law enforcement) is about helping people. That’s what it’s really about."

Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com

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