Pennington County courts overhaul bail system for inmates

Published: Jun. 8, 2018 at 6:45 PM CDT
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A major change took hold at the Pennington County Jail this week as part of the county's ambitious two-year project to reduce its jail population by 20 percent.

It's a new way of determining who must stay in jail before trial for low level, non violent offenses and could mean many fewer people spend time behind bars waiting to see a judge.

If you get arrested in Pennington County you might face the prospect of having to post bond to get out of jail before your day in court.

"What our system in Pennington County is now is a bail system," said Alecia Fuller, assistant director at the Pennington County Public Defender's Office. "You come in on a charge there's money that's set and if you can post the money you get out of jail."

Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom explains: "Currently if two people come in and they're not a risk to the community and they come in on a similar offense --or the same offense for that matter -- one person has $50 for a bondsperson and the other one doesn't, this person will bond out and the other person may sit in jail for one, two, three days until they either bond out or appear in court."

On Wednesday much of that changed. The county implemented a new computer tool known as the Public Safety Assessment, or PSA, that can determine if an individual is safe to release -- and if they will show up for their date with the judge. Now release decisions can be made directly at booking sparing some arrestees time behind bars.

"We are hoping that this reduces our jail population," said Wade Anderson the security capt. for the Pennington County Jail. "And it is a better way of assessing the risk to the community."

Jail time can be a hardship. "There are people that are in jail for petty offenses that spend days and days in jail that then end up losing their job if they had one or they have child care crises," said Fuller.

Prosecutors agree. "The reality of our community is that there are a lot of people living at or below the poverty line and they are being held in jail on very small bonds. For what reason? Are we afraid of them or can they just not come up with $50?," asked Pennington County's Chief Deputy State's Attorney Lara Roetzel.

The new assessment tool is part of the county's nearly $2 million MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant program aimed at lowering the number of jail inmates.

"The over arching goal of our MacArthur Grant protocol is to reduce the local jail population particularly for those folks who are awaiting trial while at the same time meeting our obligation to be responsive to public safety needs," said South Dakota Seventh Circuit Presiding Judge Craig Pfeifle.

The far-reaching MacArthur process involves prosecutors, public defenders the courts and law enforcement. It's existence has its roots in good communication.

"Pennington County has been, I don't know if unique is the right word but uncommon from other jurisdictions that I have been apprised of from around the country, in stakeholders talking to one another about how do we deal with systemic issues," said Pfeifle.