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Pennington County Gets Grant to Tackle High Incarceration Rates

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.

Hmm… if higher minority population alone meant higher incarceration rates, Chicago and Los Angeles ought to be outpacing Rapid City.

What about poverty rates?

Percentage of high-school graduates?

Percentage of minority-owned businesses?

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)


  1. larry kurtz 2015-05-28 11:19

    Trace Oconnell piece-a-shit who sprayed Native kids on field trip w/beer & assaulted them racially has a hearing today at 1pm in rapid city— Chase Iron Eyes (@Lastrealndn) May 28, 2015

  2. Jeff Barth 2015-05-28 11:27

    Minnehaha County is working on these issues as well. As our current jail is operating at and above capacity building a new or expanded facility is already on the drawing board. That brick and mortar operation will likely cost $40M… or more to construct and an additional $10M per year to operate.

    We applied for the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge grant but did not get it.

  3. jerry 2015-05-28 13:07

    The biggest money maker in the county is the jail. It is steady income for employment and steady income for a bucket full of unneeded expenses. I hope this grant helps to find a better way, but it looks to me like with the severe poverty that we see it will be difficult to overcome. South Dakota could be a leader in so many ways. It could stand as an energy producer of renewable energy for one. It could stand for far better than what our legislators and our business people will allow it to be. We rely on cheap immigrant labor that is housed in whatever to the extent that we refuse to hire locally that would add to the economy. When it fails, as it has shown, there is always the Heartbreak Hotel that Thom is the concierge of.

  4. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-28 18:05

    It should be pointed out that the Pennington Jail does not just house prisoners from the city and county.

    Pennington County Jail is also the holding place for federal prisoners and defendants, including many from the reservations that are under federal jurisdiction.

    Additionally the jail trades with other jails and prisoners that are not in the jurisdiction of Pennington County.

    I’m wondering if any of these considerations were made regarding their numbers.

  5. Bob Newland 2015-05-28 18:34

    The best first step would be to quit arresting people for bullshit “crimes.”

  6. grudznick 2015-05-28 19:21

    Bob, my good young friend, the best first step would be to bonk the shit out of people for doing crimes at all. Then maybe they’d stop.

  7. John 2015-05-29 08:03

    Pay me now, or you will pay later – said the educator to the warden.

    This state’s legislative and executive governance is so lame with its misplaced priorities. The state & its counties incarcerate folks at a higher rate than did the former Soviets at the height of the gulag-era, or at a higher rate than does the military-police state of China.

    Roger, for all the federal dollars Thom’s county and state take the federales SHOULD require services. You write like a true western republican to the federal government; ‘give us the money, now get out.’ You also forget the reciprocal: other jurisdictions also hold and transfer Thom’s county’s and SD prisoners. It’s a great human trafficking and warehousing game.

  8. Michael Wyland 2015-05-29 10:22

    Roger Cornelius makes an excellent point, which relates to my thought about the demographic makeup of the Pennington County Jail inmate population. If one took a look at the demographics of the catchment area for the Pennington County Jail rather than SD as a whole, I wonder whether the numbers (poverty, ethnicity/race) would change significantly?

  9. Roger Cornelius 2015-05-29 15:45

    Bite your tongue John. I am not in anyway a western republican, if there is such a thing I am probably a pragmatic liberal.

    Of course most of those incarcerated in the Pennington County Jail are there to help pay off that huge just completed project of more bricks and mortar.

    I can’t estimate how much the feds pay the county per prisoner, but I’m betting it is substantial and that it adds up to big bucks.

    And I did mention that other jurisdictions including counties and other states that transfer prisoners from one jail to another.

    Mr. Wyland, I would agree that the demographic presented would be altered if they do take into consideration those in jail that are not from Pennington County.

  10. leslie 2015-05-31 03:44

    “Our overuse of jails carries significant costs—to individuals, families, communities, and society at large.” SAJC

    both jeff davis and dennis daugaard appear to have not understood this. REPUBLICAN POLITICS AT ITS WORST. tough on crime means scare the bejesus out of the voters.


    May 17
    @thejakehorowitz @BeauKilmer @RANDCorporation @jimdseward thinking 247 is solution to disease is simplistic chaotic criminal justice.


    Jake Horowitz ‏@thejakehorowitz · Apr 22
    .@BeauKilmer on how SD’s 24/7 Sobriety reduced DUIs, DV and car crashes w/threat of mild sanctions @RANDCorporation

  11. John 2015-05-31 21:07

    RE: Thom’s, “Stop! Don’t Shoot Game”: yep, it’s a game alright to get the cops all adrenaline hyped-up so that they shoot a thousand or more citizens per year, about one third are unarmed. Recall for a minute that everyone the game warden accosts in the field IS armed, yet this rarely results in a shooting. Also recall that the officers most likely to be assaulted are park police, not beat cops.

    Oh and recall that the evil Russian police shot no one in 2014; Chinese police shot 14; the Polizei shot 1 in 2014 and 1 so far in 2015.

    Citizens are far more likely to assaulted by police than are police by citizens. No one is excusing any assault on the police; but, paraphrasing the president of the Police Foundation; uh, Houston, we have a problem . . . .

  12. jerry 2015-06-01 21:43

    Ground control to Major Thom….

  13. grudznick 2015-06-01 22:42

    Mr. Jerry, are you suggesting that Sheriff Thom has something to do with this?

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