- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A jail in Pennington County in western South Dakota is one of 20 across the nation selected to receive $150,000 each from a national nonprofit to come up with a plan to reduce the number of people behind bars while awaiting trial or serving short sentences.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Wednesday announced the grant, which Pennington County officials hope will help them figure out how to remediate a climbing jail population that has more than tripled in five years. Ten of the two dozen jurisdictions that were awarded a grant will later be chosen to receive funding of $500,000 to $2 million to implement their plans.

A 15-member committee that includes representatives from the offices of the sheriff, public defender and state’s attorney will develop the plan for Pennington County.

“It’s going to help us figure out how to make the system more efficient so that you don’t have people sitting in jail that don’t need to be there,” said Sheriff Kevin Thom, whose department will be the fiscal agent for the grant.

The county’s jail population has climbed steadily the past five years. The jail’s average daily population climbed from 155 in 2010 to 525 by 2013. Last year, the average daily population would have reached 550 had the county not allowed certain inmates to be out on electronic monitoring.

Over the next months, the foundation will provide the county’s planning committee technical assistance to study its jail population, including the reasons why inmates end up behind bars. The foundation’s help also includes three to four on-site visits.

About 12 million people pass through the roughly 3,000 local jails in the U.S. every year, most for nonviolent offenses. MacArthur officials and others note that jails, which unlike state prisons mostly detain inmates who are pre-trial, have increasingly become warehouses for mentally ill people and those too poor to afford bail.

The selected corrections systems will design a plan and work with experts to coordinate judges, prosecutors, court administrators, police and corrections officials to make the criminal just system run more efficiently.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Pennington County as a whole to reduce our reliance on local jails,” said Eric Whitcher, director of Pennington County’s public defender’s office. “This is a collaborative effort to try to find ways in which we can reduce the jail population without compromising public safety but to make it just and fair and smart.”

County leaders involved in the effort said the committee will be looking at several options, including a diversion program pre-trial, potentially changing the way bonds are set, conducting individual risk-assessments and increasing the use of electronic monitoring.

Pennington County was chosen from a pool of nearly 200 applicants.

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