Justice reform grant might cut Pennington County jail population

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Some major changes are coming to the Pennington County criminal justice system now that the county has received a $1.75 million grant to implement reforms.

The funding from the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday morning will be used in part to reduce the jail population by as much as 24 percent over two years.

“This is particularly exciting because it allows us to focus our limited resources on those among us for whom we have the most concern,” said Seventh Circuit Presiding Judge Craig Pfeifle. “We are thrilled the MacArthur Foundation is recognizing our existing reform efforts and funding us going forward.

Pennington County’s application for the grant minces no words. “We’ve got a problem,” it reads in part. Native Americans are overrepresented in the jail. There is an over-reliance on incarceration for low-risk, non-violent offenders. Now with some new resources, the county can implement some far-reaching reforms.

Two years ago the county applied for funding and received $150,000 per year over two years to begin making changes. Among the reforms under way is a pre-trial diversion program for young adult nonviolent offenders. Now the county can build on that program and institute new measures. These include tribal outreach efforts to improve relations with Native Americans and enhancing services for people with mental illness or substance abuse issues involved with the law. One thing that won’t change, officials say, is the criminal justice system’s primary responsibility.

“We are not going to compromise public safety,” said Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom. “That will remain job one. But we think we can do a better job of dealing with the chronic offenders whose main problem might be drug addiction or mental illness and some other issue and reduce the jail population and the costs to the taxpayer.”

The announcement from the MacArthur Foundation was greeted with hope from Native leaders. “I hope it helps to continue to build positive relationships between Indians and law enforcement,” said To Raymond, a longtime educator and law enforcement officer and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The grant is part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a more than $100 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way Americans think about and use jails.