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MacArthur Foundation Launches Grant Program To Reduce Jail Populations

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On any given day, more than 700,000 people are in jails across the U.S., most of them awaiting trial. That number has tripled over the past three decades. There's an effort underway to reduce jail populations funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which we should acknowledge is also a supporter of NPR. MacArthur is giving grants of $150,000 to 20 jurisdictions, counties, cities and one state, to help them compose plans to address the problem. The initial grantees range from the likes of Los Angeles County and the state of Connecticut to Pennington County, S.D., which includes Rapid City. Kevin Thom is Pennington County Sheriff, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KEVIN THOM: Thank you.

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.

SIEGEL: One of the values that the foundation stated was fairness - to make sure that the criminal justice system is being fair. Are you concerned that perhaps the system is not being fair to people today and that some people are more likely to stay in the county jail than others?

THOM: We've looked at that a number of times in South Dakota, again, because we're disproportionate minority contact with Native Americans in our correctional facilities. And I think you will find that minority groups generally have a more difficult time posting bond and may have bonds set higher.

One of the unique things we deal with in South Dakota is if somebody goes to the reservation, which one of the reservations borders Pennington County, I can't extradite him back off the reservation. So if they post a bond and it's a serious offense and they go to the reservation, I have no recourse. That's something that's taken into consideration when judges are setting bonds. So I think because of that, bonds are set higher.

SIEGEL: If there really are questions that are going to be answered by this study in Rapid City that you don't have the answer to now, what, for you, is the biggest question that you'd like to see answered so you could make a plan based on that information?

THOM: Well, I think looking at our pre-trial releases - and we've talked a number of times about some type of a risk-assessment instrument, a more objective criteria for releasing people. We have an electronic monitoring program which is an ankle bracelet we use on people that are on work release. That's post-conviction. Is there some room for expansion using diversion programs like that on the front side instead of the backside of the process? And hopefully, it keeps them with their family. It keeps them at their job so they're still a productive member of society.

SIEGEL: Well, Sheriff Thom, thanks a lot for talking with us today about the grant.

THOM: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Kevin Thom who is the sheriff in Pennington County, S.D. That includes Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.