Pennington Co. Sheriff Has New Ideas To Reduce Jail Time


The methamphetamine epidemic in South Dakota has put increasing pressure on county jails, and on the courts, to deal with all the suspects being brought in. 

So Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom is making use of a new grant from the MacArthur Foundation to implement a four-part program to clear up the legal log jam.

It consists of a more extensive outreach with the tribes to streamline law enforcement efforts. It also includes a new case processing plan that includes improved procedures by the courts, and by the State’s Attorney’s Office.  It includes new community supervision, and electronic monitoring alternatives to traditional jail sentences.  And it includes pre-trial alternatives. 

“The jails have been largely overlooked so the the MacArthur Foundation started the safety and justice challenge and we were one of 20 sites that were selected,” Kevin Thom Pennington County Sheriff said.

One of the most important of the new initiatives is the effort to find pre-trial alternatives to jail time, one of which is called a public safety assessment, which was designed by the Arnold Foundation.   

“We’ve worked with Minnehaha County, frankly dovetailed off their efforts to develop the public safety assessment tool that’s used at booking. It’s a matrix and, in our case, is used in lieu of a cash bond at times. Or, also used by the court to determine someone’s eligibility for the cash bond,” said Thom. 

The courts are putting the public safety assessment to use as a tool to make more efficient use of court time, and give a clearer picture of who a defendant is when he appears in front of a judge. 

“Up to now, mostly what a judge has is 60 seconds worth of argument from both sides about whether this person should stay in jail.  So, they have a little bit of the facts of the case, and a tiny bit of criminal history. The Arnold is giving them a great deal more information.  We’re hoping that will allow us to let some people out to reduce jail numbers,” Pennington County States Attorney Mark Vargo said.

Part of the program is a more flexible way of using bonds in dealing with minor offenses.  

“We penalize people with cash bonds on the low-level offenses, when there’s probably a better alternative. So, say the bond is 500 dollars. One person may have 50 dollars to pay a bond person, or the 500 dollars in cash.   The other person may not  have the 50 dollars for a bonds person.   So they sit in a jail for three or four days, costing us 80 dollars a day to house them.  I’d be money ahead to pay their bond person for them,” said Thom. 

Thom emphasizes that this alternative is not used in more serious cases. 

“We’re not talking robbery and rape and murder. We’re talking the low-level offenses. So, you can better utilize the resources you do have for the more serious crimes: serious cases,” Vargo said.

The Pennington County State’s Attorney says his office is fully on board with the new programs.  

“We have to be part of that effort because, ultimately, what the sheriff is trying to do is to make sure that we’re keeping the right people and letting the right people go,” Vargo said.

Vargo also emphasizes that the public safety assessment is not being used to put dangerous criminals on the street. 

“The worry is that if we hold people that really don’t need to be there, then we don’t have room for the ones that really are a danger to the community,” Vargo said.

If the programs work, they will give judges and jailers more choices in dealing with serious crime. 

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