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Pennington County awarded $1.2 million more aimed at criminal justice reform
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Pennington County awarded $1.2 million more aimed at criminal justice reform


Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, left, and Judge Craig Pfeifle, presider of the 7th Judicial Circuit which includes Pennington County, announced Wednesday that their agencies have received $1.2 million in additional grant monies for criminal justice reforms. 

Pennington County has been awarded $1.2 million more in grant money aimed at reducing its jail population and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, local leaders announced Wednesday. 

The new two-year grant means the sheriff's office and 7th Circuit Court have now been awarded $3.55 million since 2015 from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge. 

"This 1.2-million continuance speaks to the confidence that MacArthur has in what we've been doing here in Pennington County," Craig Pfeifle, presiding circuit judge, said during a news conference at the Public Safety Building in Rapid City. 

"We're not just trying to reduce the jail population, we're trying to do so in a way that is a better outcome for the offender and the community," said Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo. "So it truly is about both safety and justice, and we've proven that we're moving in that direction."

Pennington County was one of five jurisdictions to receive renewed funding, according to a news release from the Safety and Justice Challenge. The challenge has invested $217 million in 51 jurisdictions in 32 states to reduce over-incarceration, address racial disparities in local criminal justice systems, and change the way the U.S. thinks about and uses jails.

Local leaders have used its grant money to create multiple programs, including an algorithm that helps judges determine bond, alternatives to incarceration including cultural-based programming and a community work program, warrant resolution outreach in Pennington County and nearby reservations, and a jail review team that meets to see who can safely be released from jail. The money has also been used to expand diversion programs and Safe Solutions, a space in the Care Campus where intoxicated people can sleep. 

Sheriff Kevin Thom said the most significant impact of the grant and these programs has been the reduction in the amount of people jailed for misdemeanors. 

The number of people referred to jail charged only with misdemeanors decreased 74 percent between September 2017 and September 2019, according to a news release from the local agencies. People also had shorter jail stays. 

Diverting people to the Care Campus or letting them out of jail while awaiting trial "stops people from churning through the system," Thom told the Journal. 

But the grant has not resulted in the county reaching the goal it set in 2015 to reduce the average daily population (ADP) of the jail by 20 percent. In fact, the population has increased. 

The ADP grew by less than 30 people between 2016 and 2019, according to grant manager Liz Hassett. 

Data previously provided to the Journal shows that the ADP increased from 479 in 2015 to 614 in 2018. And Native Americans were jailed at a rate 16 times higher than the county’s white population, according to a March 2016 Journal article.

Hassett did not provide the 2019 ADP or a racial breakdown of the yearly ADPs. 

"What's driving our jail population is possession of a controlled substance and that's largely driven by methamphetamine," Thom said, echoing previous comments he's made

Rapid City drug arrests hit an all-time high in 2019 and have more than doubled since 2012, according to data from the police department.

Most people in jail are being detained pre-trial, rather than serving sentences, said Eric Whitcher, director of the public defender's office. While most are there for alleged drug offenses, others are booked into jail after failing the 24/7 Program, a pre-trial and probation drug and alcohol testing program. 

Other jurisdictions — including Philadelphia County, New Orleans, St. Louis County, Cook County (where Chicago is located) and New York City, have reduced their jail populations by more than 25 percent — according to the Safety and Justice news release. 

Pennington County will use the new money to expand its current programs and focus on pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion, alternatives to incarceration, outreach to neighboring tribes, enhanced mental health and substance abuse treatment, and better data collection and reporting, according to its news release. The sheriff's office and court will do this by working with the Rapid City Police Department, corrections officials, judges, community groups, and the state's attorney and public defender offices.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at

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