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Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom speaks to the media during the press conference earlier this month. 

The amount of people locked up at the Pennington County Jail continues to grow, despite new programs and millions of dollars meant to reverse this trend, due to the state's meth crisis, Sheriff Kevin Thom said. 

"Methamphetamine is driving the numbers," Thom said when asked why the jail population is increasing even though the sheriff's office and local state court have implemented reform efforts as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge

Last year saw an average daily jail population of 614 people for a total of 14,081 people (including repeat bookings) throughout the year, according to the sheriff office's 2018 annual report. In 2017, there was an average of 573 people in jail each day for a total of 13,687 throughout the year. The average daily populations for 2016 and 2015 were 499 and 479, respectively.  

In 2018, 1,220 people were arrested for methamphetamine possession compared to 893 in 2017. 

Thom said without the reform efforts, the jail numbers would be in "significant trouble" with even faster population growth due to meth-related arrests.

"We've deferred our growth significantly and had we not been t-boned by this methamphetamine crisis, epidemic, I think we would be going the other way," in terms of the jail population, he said.

Thom also pointed out that some of the new programs — such as pre-trial electronic monitoring, a bond assessment system, community work program and expanded Care Campus — have only been around for a few months and may show a greater impact once they've been in place for a longer time. 

In 2017, 486 people were sentenced to probation on condition that they wear electronic ankle monitors, a move that avoids sending them to jail. The monitors cost $15 a day compared to an $80-per-day stay in jail. In 2018, 361 people were on post-conviction ankle monitors, and 311 more people wore them after electronic monitoring was expanded in June to pre-trial defendants so they could live in the community instead of staying in jail while awaiting trial.

The meth crisis is also evident in how many people are using the Safe Solutions Beds and undergoing urinalysis (UA) tests at the 24/7 sobriety program, Thom said. 

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 25 2018, there were 4,755 admissions to the Safe Solutions program, which provide a safe space for intoxicated or high people to rest and sleep. It was located on LaCrosse Street, away from downtown, and had seven beds for men. The new Safe Solutions program opened Sept. 26 with 46 beds for men and women at the Care Campus in downtown Rapid City. In those last three months, the program admitted 3,838 people.

At the beginning of the year, 384 people a week did UA tests at the 24/7 Program. By the end of the year, it was 512 per week. Judges can order defendants to undergo UA testing so they can live in the community, not jail, before trial or as part of their probation. 

"We're not going to arrest our way out of the problem," Thom said when asked what it will take to start shrinking the jail population in light of the meth crisis. "We need more dollars in treatment, and we need more dollars put into prevention. It's much more cost effective to prevent it then it is treat it or incarcerate the issue."

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Thom said he was happy to see Gov. Kristi Noem propose millions in funding for prevention and treatment

Other trends

While the adult jail population increased, the juvenile jail population remained steady with an average of 38 youth a day last year compared to 35 in 2017. The Arise Youth Center, a shelter for juveniles accused of non-violent low-level offenses, housed an average of 10 people per day last year compared to eight in 2017. 

Thom said he thinks state and county juvenile reform efforts have helped prevent population growth at the youth detention center.

The sheriff's office received or initiated 44,319 calls last year, compared to 44,238 the year before. 

Within its jurisdiction — therefore excluding the Rapid City and Box Elder police departments — the sheriff's office saw an increase in sexual assault reports: 119 in 2017 compared to 166 in 2018. Reports of stolen vehicles also increased from 32 in 2017 to 42 last year.

There were two reported murders in its jurisdiction compared to zero in 2017 and one per year between 2014-2016.

Like the Rapid City Police Department, the sheriff's office arrested fewer drunk drivers in 2018 than the year before. Deputies arrested 222 people for DUIs, a 29.5 percent decrease from 2017. 

Thom, like the Rapid City police chief, attributed the decline in DUI arrests to public education about the dangers of drunken driving and more people using Lyft and taxis to get home safely. 

The annual report also outlines what to expect in 2019, including purchasing a new drone and opening a new and expanded intensive inpatient drug treatment center and a bigger kitchen and laundry room in the jail. The sheriff's office says it will work to reduce its jail population with an automated court notification date system — which will help people avoid being sent to jail by showing up at their court dates — and jail population review team, which will continuously asses whether inmates can be released into an alternative program. 

Thom said he hopes the public reads the report so it knows how its tax dollars are being spent, and so it realizes how the sheriff's office collaborates with other law enforcement agencies and nonprofits. 

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

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