Recently, several people have voiced concerns over the perceived hands-off approach by law enforcement in our city. The feeling is that local governments have sold their souls to acquire funding through the MacArthur Foundation, which in turn, has caused or required the police to look the other way when crimes are committed. This is grown into a quasi-conspiracy theory and has now become a subject during public comment at City Council meetings.
The MacArthur Foundation is a private entity that awards many millions of dollars in grants annually. They seek to “support creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” The Foundation supports justice reform in the United States.
Locally, there has been growing frustration with the homeless population. A few people have wrongly concluded this is because law enforcement has taken a different approach due to the MacArthur grant they have received. This is not the case.
Rapid City is not a recipient of MacArthur funding. Pennington County receives these funds which are used to fund the County’s own crime reduction initiatives. These initiatives are an effort to engage the community, decrease incarceration for low-level crimes, pre-trial monitoring, operation of the Care Campus and a variety of other cost-saving programs. The MacArthur grant is not awarded contingent on reduced level of law enforcement response or prosecutions. Pennington County and their stakeholders develop their own initiatives and are under no mandates from the Foundation.
The cornerstone of South Dakota’s criminal justice reform came in 2013 with the passing of then Senate Bill 70. This bill was passed, in part, to avoid building new prison space which is terribly inefficient and expensive to taxpayers.
As a result of, or in conjunction with the 2013 reform bill, the judicial system in South Dakota has adopted new practices relating to incarceration for minor offenses, extended use of probation, pre-trial monitoring and a variety of other creative approaches in hopes of unburdening the criminal justice system. This has been an eight-year process and did not happen in just the five or so years Pennington County has been receiving MacArthur funding.
Currently, many community issues are being re-categorized from crime problems to social problems. This is an obvious step considering the impacts poverty, addiction and mental illness have on the justice system. This requires more of a social service response in addition to treating many of these conditions as public health issues rather than criminal issues.
The bottom line is this: police officers can no longer be used to clear the streets of homeless or alcoholic people through arrest and incarceration. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. The discontinuation of this archaic criminal justice tool, and waiting for appropriate social service tools to be created, has perhaps created a gap whereby homelessness has been allowed to flourish unmitigated.
Some of the more vocal folks would have us believe this is only occurring in Rapid City, when in fact it is a nationwide phenomenon. We should always focus on keeping our community safe, but also search for the most cost-effective and efficient way to operate the justice system.
This is a trying and important time in our lives, when facts should influence actions rather than emotions. Criminal justice is never as easy as it seems.