New Pennington County fund to defray costs for some 24/7 program participants

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Pennington County’s 24/7 Sobriety Program was designed as a deterrent to jail, giving people faced with drug or alcohol offenses a chance to be sober while maintaining a work and family life.

The cost falls on the participant but if they can’t pay, it ends up costing the taxpayer. A new program with funds recently approved by the Pennington County Commission, aims at helping participants needing a hand to pay for drug or alcohol tests to stay out of jail.

In 2017, Pennington County was granted $1.75 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to find ways to reduce incarceration. $20,000 of that money was ear-marked last week for an “indigent fund”.

“It’s for indigent people to cover some of their 24/7 fees to get them back on their feet,” said Chief Deputy Brian Mueller with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.

The Public Defender’s Office is appointed roughly 6,500 cases files annually. Director of the Public Defender’s Office Eric Whitcher, says as part of a defendant’s application for court appointed counsel, the court determines indigence.

The ear-marked money would be exhausted in about 45 days if funding was allowed for everyone. With the indigent fund, money will only be available for a person if they meet certain criteria and a circuit court judge approves the use by a defendant.

“They have to be deemed indigent by the court, [they] have to be on bond, and they can only do it one time,” said Whitcher.

Through the 24/7 program, participants are expected to pay their own way or go back to jail. Breathalyzers cost $1 and urinalysis, $10. Factoring in the amount of times a person may be ordered to take the tests weekly, at the most, breathalyzers can cost $14 a week, and urinalysis, $30 a week. If they cannot pay for a test, the alternative is jail which ends up costing the taxpayer roughly $80 a day.

“We see a lot of folks come to our office and have their children with them and they’re just crying because they know as soon as they go over there, they’re going to go to jail,” said Whitcher. “They don’t know what’s going to happen to their kids because they don’t have $10 dollars and this will be a way they can stay out of jail for a few days so they can gather up the money.”

So how long will this fund last? Whitcher says he’s unsure but as soon as the program is implemented, Pennington County will track the use and data to see if it does make a difference in keeping people out of jail. Then, maybe it will become a portion of the budget down the road.

“We’re going to run this as a pilot program this year with the first $20,000 to see if this is something we need to fund going forward to see if it actually reduces our jail population,” said Mueller.

Before the program goes into effect, 7th Circuit Court Presiding Judge Craig Pfeifle must approve the program.

Categories: Local News