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Pennington County Jail 

South Dakota jails the most people per capita, according to a new report

An estimated 2,888 out of 100,000 residents are jailed each year, compared to the national rate of 1,506 per 100,000 residents, the Prison Policy Initiative said in a September 2019 briefing. 

These statistics "highlight the need for criminal justice reform," the South Dakota ACLU said in a news release. The ACLU said it hopes lawmakers and others involved in a summer study session on drug laws will consider the report. 

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom expressed reservations about the study, because it's based on self-reporting rather than data from the government.

"I question the methodology in the study," he said.

PPI is a nonpartisan nonprofit that researches mass criminalization in an effort to create a more just society, according to its website

It calculated the per capita incarceration rate by comparing the state's population to an estimated 25,000 unique jail admissions each year. The latter figure comes from the 2016-2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

The NSDUH is conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It conducts polls about drug and mental health issues and asks respondents if they've been jailed in the past year.

PPI says South Dakota likely has more than 25,000 unique jail admissions each year because the survey couldn't contact homeless who live on the street and those who are already incarcerated. 

The ACLU also pointed to racial disparities in South Dakota jails.

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Native Americans — who represent at least 9 percent of the state's population based on census data — between the ages of 15 and 64 were jailed at more than 10 times the rate of white South Dakotans in 2015, according to the Vera Institute for Justice

Vera, a nonprofit dedicated to ending mass incarceration and other issues, obtained most of its data from Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

South Dakota also is arresting people at a higher rate than its population growth. Arrests have jumped by nearly 42 percent from 31,801 in 2010 to 45,142 in 2018, according to data from the Attorney General's Office. During that time, the population grew by 8.3 percent — from about 814,000 to 882,000 people.

Pennington County, meanwhile, has been working to slow down its jail growth with new initiatives, such as a mental health court and community work programs.

Many of the new programs are funded by more than $2 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, a program meant to address racial and economic inequality within the criminal justice system and reduce jail population.

The funding began in 2015 and has been used for the county's diversion program, new bond system, community engagement, Safe Solutions sobering center at the Care Campus, warrant resolution outreach and other initiatives. 

While the county has not yet reached its goal of reducing the jail population by 20% before the end of 2019, it is beginning to see the jail population level out, according to data from the Pennington County Sheriff's Office

The average daily jail population grew from 479 in 2015 to 499 in 2016 and then from 573 in 2017 to 614 in 2018. Now, the average daily population — 612.6 through September — is nearly identical to last year's average.

"It's a reflection of what we've been doing with our MacArthur initiatives" and alternatives to jail, Thom said. He said a flat rate is "still a win" given an increase in felony drug arrests. 

There have been 1,123 such arrests through September compared to the 1,097 made in 2018, according to the Sheriff's Office.

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

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