Pennington County is receiving a $150,000 grant through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge to develop a plan reduce its prison population. The county is one of twenty finalists nationwide, ten of whom will be chosen next year to receive between $500,000 and $2,000,000 to implement their incarceration-reduction plans.
NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom about Pennington County’s remarkably high prison population:
SIEGEL: What’s your average jail population in Pennington County, S.D.?
THOM: We run about 550 a day.
SIEGEL: Chicago is in Cook County, and that county’s jails have a daily average population of about 9,000. In Los Angeles County, it’s about 22,000. But actually, as a percent of population, you’re right up there. You’ve got a bigger share of your population in jail than they do.
THOM: Yeah. Per capita, you know, it is high. About 94 percent of those are misdemeanor or low-level offenses, and hopefully we can find some solutions to that.
SIEGEL: Is it because a particular kind of offense is more common or there are more arrests for it or fewer people are making bail? How do you understand the growth of the – or is the population that much bigger than it was a couple of decades ago?
THOM: Well, I mean, you have some natural growth of population. I think what got us on the radar with the MacArthur Foundation, in terms of our application, was our significant Native-American population that we have incarcerated which accounts for about 50 percent of our jail population [Robert Siegel, “MacArthur Foundation Launches Grant Program To Reduce Jail Populations,” NPR: All Things Considered, 2015.05.27].
Sheriff Thom explains that South Dakota’s correctional system has “disproportionate minority contact with Native Americans” in part because Indians (like other minority populations, says Thom) are generally lower-income folks who have trouble making bail.
But let’s compare the demographics of Pennington County with the locales Siegel mentions.
- Cook County, IL: 65.9% white
- Los Angeles County, CA: 71.5% white
- Pennington County, SD: 83.5% white
- South Dakota: 85.9%
- United States: 77.7%
Hmm… if higher minority population alone meant higher incarceration rates, Chicago and Los Angeles ought to be outpacing Rapid City.
What about poverty rates?
- Cook County, IL: 16.9%
- Los Angeles County, CA: 17.8%
- Pennington County, SD: 13.5%
- South Dakota: 14.1%
- United States: 15.4%
Percentage of high-school graduates?
- Cook County, IL: 84.5%
- Los Angeles County, CA: 76.6%
- Pennington County, SD: 91.6%
- South Dakota: 90.4%
- United States: 86.0%
Percentage of minority-owned businesses?
- Cook County, IL: 14.8%
- Los Angeles County, CA: 46.5%
- Pennington County, SD: 4.6%
- South Dakota: 3.9%
- United States: 22.1%
I know I’m just reaching for numbers here, but the measure of minority population that Sheriff Thom mentions, along with measures of income and education that we might conventionally associate with folks getting in trouble, don’t by themselves indicate that Pennington County should have more of its population in prison than Cook or Los Angeles counties.
But could there be a connection between minority business ownership and minority incarceration rates? I know Steve Allender doesn’t like racial tokenism, but perhaps he and the mayor he’s trying to unseat in Rapid City, Sam Kooiker, should take a look at economic development programs that focus on increasing minority business opportunities.
p.s.: In 2013, South Dakota’s incarceration rate was the highest in the region (the lowest was in—you guessed it—Minnesota, which threw folks in the can at 46% of our rate)