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Pennington County's forefathers never intended for their jail to become the sprawling, multimillion-dollar, 624-bed behemoth it is now.

That’s clear from the look of the old 1921 jail, a quaint little structure that is now overshadowed, literally, by the modern mega-jail on county government’s campus in eastern downtown Rapid City.

The old boutique-sized jail, with a few modifications and additions, served the county well for many years. By the time of the nation’s first jail census in 1970, the average daily inmate count in Pennington County was only 51.

Since then, the average daily count has soared past 400, and the old jail has been converted to other uses as numerous construction projects have sent modern jail buildings rising skyward.

Now, the decades-long trend of incarcerating more people and building more jail space to house them appears to have reached a tipping point.

“The check was bound to come due,” said Eric Whitcher, director of the county Public Defender’s Office, “and it’s coming due now.”

The amount of that check will be in the tens of millions of dollars, according to Sheriff Kevin Thom, if the county allows the jail population to keep growing and is forced, yet again, to build more jail space.

That is one reason a more thoughtful approach to jailing people is dawning, possibly with the aid of one of the largest charitable foundations in the United States.

Pennington County is among 20 nationwide finalists in the Safety and Justice Challenge, a program of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The county is seeking $4.9 million in grant funding over three years to implement alternatives to jail for low-level, nonviolent suspects and convicts. The goal is a 25 percent reduction in the county's own average daily inmate population, from 365 (which excludes contract prisoners housed for the federal government and a few other counties) to about 275.

Highlights of the plan, which will be detailed in this Rapid City Journal special report over the next four days, include development of a larger "sobering center" as an alternative to lockup for intoxicated street people; replacement of monetary bail in some cases with a process known as risk assessment; efforts to reduce the disproportionately high incarceration rate among Native Americans; and increased use of community service, electronic bracelet monitoring and other alternatives to jail time.

The grant money would be spread over three years. About 60 percent of the total request, nearly $3 million, would go toward personnel hired to implement and operate the various initiatives.

The final grant application was submitted in January by a committee of local leaders, and award announcements are anticipated soon. Members of the committee say they will try to move ahead with some of the initiatives even if the grant application fails.

“The idea is to be smarter with our resources, because we do have a finite amount,” said Sheriff Thom, the local committee’s co-chairman. “To be smarter with our resources and not compromise public safety.”

A rising tide of inmates

The jail has not yet run out of places to house inmates, but as Capt. Rob Yantis said on a recent day in the holding area, “We get really, really, really close.”

Theories abound about the historical causes of rising inmate numbers.

Whitcher, the head public defender, partially blamed get-tough-on-crime and war-on-drug laws adopted in the 1970s and ’80s.

Several other jail-grant committee members said increasing use of drugs, including methamphetamine, has caused more crime.

Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said declining social acceptance of some behaviors, such as drunken driving, has led to criminalization of activities that were formerly condoned or ignored. That has been a good thing, he said, but it has also put more people in jail than anyone anticipated.

Whatever the historical causes, members of the local grant committee are more concerned about what is happening now. During research conducted for the grant application, they gained insight into local practices and policies that sometimes send nonviolent people to jail and keep them there because of factors tied to their race or financial status, or because of decisions made by arresting officers and judges, or because of a lack of alternatives to jail.

Those local practices and policies mirror a nationwide failure to exert thoughtful control over who goes to jail and for how long, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a partner in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. A report from the institute says the number of people in local jails — which are distinct from state and federal prisons — across the United States has more than quadrupled during the past four decades, from 157,000 to 690,000. The rate of growth has been more pronounced in Pennington County, where the 2014 average daily inmate count of 434 was nearly nine times the count of 51 in 1970.

To put Pennington County’s post-1970 inmate boom in historical context, consider that it took the county 105 years after building its first courthouse and jail to reach a daily average inmate count of 100. After that, it took only seven years to reach 200; 12 years to reach 300; and seven years to reach 400.

In other words, the county’s jail population has grown three times as much in the past few decades as it did during the entire previous century.

Costs rise, too

The rising inmate population and resulting buildup of jail space have come with costs.

The basic cost of running the Pennington County Jail is about $12 million a year, which is the amount budgeted for it this year by county government. That cost alone accounts for 15 percent of the county’s total budget, but it does not tell a complete story about the costs of mass incarceration.

Beyond the roughly $80 per day that it costs to house an inmate, and the human toll of such mass incarceration, there are other, harder-to-track costs that have seeped into various parts of the county’s broader budget.

They arise because a higher inmate count translates to a need for more court proceedings, more judges, more prosecutors and public defenders, and more court clerks and court-services employees. Many of those costs are absorbed by the county, which has suffered a tripling in the past 15 years of its budgets for both prosecuting crimes and defending suspects who cannot afford an attorney.

The county’s annual budget for the State’s Attorney’s Office is now about $4 million, and the combined annual budgets for the county Public Defender’s Office and additional court-appointed private attorneys are about $3 million.

Implications for inmates

There are human costs, too, in the form of thousands of stories like those of 34-year-old Alex Rosado.

During a childhood spent shuffling between the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Rapid City, Rosado had his first drink of alcohol at age 14. It set him on a path of problem drinking and low-level crime that has kept him cycling in and out of jail, usually for misdemeanor crimes fueled by alcohol.

“It’s pretty much the drinking,” Rosado said during a recent jail stint for his third drunken-driving conviction. “Every time I’ve been in trouble, it’s always been either alcohol- or substance-related.”

By his own admission, it's mostly his fault, but the system has added to his misery by keeping him in jail for long stretches as he awaited the outcome of low-level criminal cases. There have been times, for example, when Rosado stayed behind bars only because of his inability to pay $50 for a bail bond.

Even if a judge had wanted to let him out, there have been few alternatives to bail as a means of ensuring a suspect's appearance at court. Electronic bracelet monitoring, for example, has not been used for pretrial suspects in Pennington County but would be used under a proposed grant initiative.

Paradoxically, electronic monitoring is often used as part of a probationary sentence after a conviction, in part because of recent state government efforts to slow the growth of state-run prisons. The result is a jail in Pennington County where three-fourths of the inmates are pretrial suspects, some of whom spend more time in jail before a conviction than after. It means that about 75 percent of inmates in the jail have not yet been proven guilty of the crime with which they are charged.

During Rosado's jail stints, he's lost jobs, had to postpone his pursuit of a vocational degree, and lost touch with relatives and friends. Those problems made him more likely to continue abusing alcohol and drugs, and more likely to commit further crimes.

It’s a cycle that Whitcher, the county’s head public defender, sees routinely among the roughly 6,000 cases handled annually by his office. That caseload is up 180 percent since since the earliest statistics compiled in 1993.

Whitcher said there are many nonviolent people in Pennington County who go to jail because of a lack of non-jail alternatives and then stay in jail because of a lack of money for bail.

“There are a lot of people there,” he said, “who everybody agrees shouldn’t be there.”

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.