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In its first month, Pennington County’s new system for assessing jail bonds was used on nearly 700 arrestees. Some ended up being kept in the county jail and others were released.

They were all evaluated against nine factors that predict the likelihood they’ll commit a new crime or skip court. Among the factors are whether they have a pending criminal charge, a prior conviction for a violent crime and failed to appear in court the past two years. The point is to identify the low-risk and nonviolent defendants who don’t need to be locked up during the months their cases are being prosecuted.

This new evaluation system, called the Public Safety Assessment, has been used at the Pennington County Jail since June 6. First, an arrestee’s information is entered into a computer at the jail booking area, then the program will come back with one of two results: “release” or “hold pending judicial review.” It considers a person’s entire adult criminal history in the United States.

The safety assessment weighs the risks a defendant poses rather than the nature of his or her charge. It was designed to replace the jail’s use of a bond schedule — a list of criminal charges and their designated bond amounts — which says whether a person should be detained until a judge can set bond or be released after paying the preset bond.

“What it does is it equals the playing field,” Brian Mueller, Pennington County’s chief deputy sheriff who oversees the jail, said of the assessment. “It’s not gonna be who can come up with the (money) to go through the bail bondsman.”

In the past, people have stayed in jail simply because they didn't have $50. This is the minimum that bail bond agents charge for bonds of up to $500, often for low-level and nonviolent charges.

Reduce jail population

Pennington County adopted the safety assessment, developed by the Houston-based Arnold Foundation, in its effort to reduce the jail population. The county then came up a plan to implement the assessment locally. This year, as of July 20, the jail’s average daily population was 649 inmates. The figure was 455 in the year 2010 and 313 in 2000, according to the sheriff’s office. 

Right now, the sheriff’s office spends about $13.7 million a year to run the jail, of which roughly half comes from taxpayers.

In October, the county and the 7th Circuit Court, which encompasses Pennington County, received a grant of $1.75 million under the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. The challenge is a $100 million nationwide initiative to combat over-incarceration in U.S. jails. The Pennington County Jail aims to reduce its population by 20 percent by October 2019.

Jails are largely made up of people awaiting trial who are presumed innocent. The MacArthur Foundation believes locking up defendants who aren’t a danger to public safety or a flight risk hurts communities in a variety of ways. These include preventing defendants from working and paying taxes, keeping parents and children apart, as well as wasting taxpayers' money.

“Our hope, obviously, is that we’re able to reduce the jail population enough to eventually close cell blocks and repurpose that staff for other things,” said Mueller, the chief deputy sheriff who oversees the jail.

Pennington County is the only jurisdiction in the country where defendants can be released by the jail based on safety assessment results, said Liz Hassett, grant manager of the Safety and Justice Challenge. Other places that use the assessment have to wait for a judge to determine bond, she said.

More bonding options

The assessment is being supplemented by the use of electronic monitoring, or ankle monitors, for arrestees who need closer supervision after they’re released.

Before June 6, ankle monitors were primarily used to keep track of people who’d been convicted and allowed to work in the community while serving their sentence. Now, they can become a condition of release for a pretrial defendant.

Last year, the county imposed electronic monitoring on 40 pretrial defendants. Since the safety assessment came into use, an estimated 60 pretrial defendants have used them daily. Housing a person in jail costs $80 a day, Mueller said, whereas an ankle monitor costs the jail about $3.25.

Judges in the county have found the updated bonding system beneficial, said Craig Pfeifle, presiding judge of the 7th Circuit Court. The safety assessment, he said, provides judges with more objective information about defendants within a fairly short time and early on in the court process. Electronic monitoring offers judges more options when setting bond, he said. (Participation in the county’s 24/7 sobriety testing program has existed as a condition of bond since 2005.)

In the hands of judges, safety assessment findings on whether to release or hold a defendant — and under what conditions — serve merely as recommendations. Judges make the final bonding decision after considering arguments from the prosecution and defense and other case information.

“We never divest the judge of his or her discretion,” Pfeifle said.

When asked how effective the assessment has been so far, county officials involved in its implementation said significant results can only be seen after at least half a year.

Future challenges

The Public Defender’s Office believes adopting the safety assessment is a step forward for Pennington County’s criminal justice system but that tweaks still need to be made.

There are defendants who’ve been released from jail under the assessment who wouldn’t have qualified under the old system, said Eric Whitcher, director of the Public Defender’s Office. At the same time, he said, there are people in jail right now who would’ve been released under the old system. For instance, some people facing low-level charges are being held because they have had previous low-level charges and failed to show up in court. These minor offenses include disorderly conduct, drinking in public and public indecency.

“Every time you make this kind of a sea change, there’s gonna be bumps along the road,” Whitcher said. “We’re just gonna have to work through that.”

One challenge, he said, is to put enough bond conditions so defendants stay on the right track yet not put too many conditions that they’re bound to violate them.

Whitcher expects the pressure on the local criminal justice system to be alleviated after the opening of the Restoration Center in the fall. It will offer mental health and substance abuse treatment that can divert low-level offenders from jail.

Meanwhile, to increase the odds that released defendants appear in court, the county is building an automated system that would send text messages or emails to remind defendants of their next court dates.

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Contact Tiffany Tan at tiffany.tan@rapidcityjournal.com.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal from February 2016 to July 2018. Contact her on Facebook or Twitter @tiffgtan.