Crowded Pennington County Jail population begins to drop

 The inmate population at the Pennington County Jail is beginning to show signs of falling.
The inmate population at the Pennington County Jail is beginning to show signs of falling. (KOTA)
Published: Jul. 24, 2019 at 7:28 PM CDT
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A major overhaul of aspects of Pennington County's criminal justice system designed to lower the jail population is starting to bear fruit.

Since 2017, Pennington County has received close to $3 million in assistance from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the number of inmates by 20%.

The county has identified five major initiatives under the grant including tribal outreach and pretrial diversion programs that keep some nonviolent offenders out of jail.

The work is paying off. Since September, the average jail population is down at least 5%.

"We're starting to see very positive success which can be attributed 100 percent to our large-scale multi-agency collaboration," said Pennington County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Brian Mueller. "Everybody's working together on this to ensure that not only are we reducing our local jail numbers but we're doing that safely."

When the county embarked on a path toward systemic change and it took buy-in from all quarters: The courts, the sheriff, prosecutors, public defenders police and social services. And after some touch-and-go moments, the initiative appears to be paying off.

"I'm convinced that the cohesive nature of the leadership has been one of the primary reasons that despite some initial setbacks that our MacArthur protocol is staying on track," said Judge Craig A. Pfeifle, the Seventh Circuit presiding judge.

A big piece of the plan was the launch last year of the Public Safety Assessment, or PSA, that uses data to determine if certain nonviolent offenders get put in jail of released before court dates.

"I think the implementation of the PSA as well as the other initiatives under the MacArthur Grant have been successful," said Pfeifle.

And the September opening of the county's Care Campus, which offers an alternative to jail for low-level offenders, has kept more than 800 people out of jail, according to data from the Care Campus.

"We're seeing really good success with our public safety assessment, our PSA, at the jail as far as reducing the numbers at the jail safely," said Mueller. "But that is increasing some of our failure to appear rates," meaning more people are failing to show up for their court dates.

And what's the response to that? More collaboration. Professionals at the Care Campus are now helping to get word to folks who might need a nudge to go to court.

"We're working very hard with representatives from the judicial system as well as Pennington County in utilizing intersect points within the care campus to assist people in getting to court," said Barry Tice with Pennington County Health and Human Services.

And more changes are coming. And possibly, more support from MacArthur Foundation.

The foundation has invited Pennington County to apply for a next multi-million dollar round of funding for the initiative.