Pennington County hires staff in efforts to slash jail population

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - Pennington County took a big step Tuesday toward big changes in its criminal justice system as the County Commission approved seven new hires to implement strategies designed to lower the jail population by 20 percent over two years.

"This is absolutely one of the most exciting days for the future of criminal justice in Pennington County," said Pennington County States Attorney Mark Vargo. "It gives us an opportunity to try to find better outcomes for people at the same time we can protect the community."

The new staff positions will be funded out of a nearly $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Vargo explained to the commissioners that the goal is that the new initiatives will save the county enough money by the end of the two year grant period that the county will be able to retain the newly hired staff -- and still save money.

The jail population reduction strategies will focus on areas such as tribal outreach and finding efficiencies in case processing. The MacArthur grant project will also explore ways to keep non-violent offenders out of the Pennington County Jail while they await their day in court.

The county's top public defender, Eric Whitcher, said he was pleased to see the project off the ground.

"We're excited," he said. "We're going to try some things that are going to be on the cutting edge in the country to try to make a fairer and more just criminal justice system."

County commissioner unanimously approved the new hires with commissioner George Ferebee abstaining.