Rapid City / Pennington County: protect human rights in COVID-19 response

Rapid City Mayor’s Office, Rapid City Common Council, Rapid City Police Department, Pennington County Commissioners, Pennington County Sheriff's Department, Pennington County Prosecutors and Parole Officers and Judges

We must take immediate steps to protect the housing and economic health of our community.

Petition by
West River Housing Coalition
Rapid City, South Dakota

To: Rapid City Mayor’s Office, Rapid City Common Council, Rapid City Police Department, Pennington County Commissioners, Pennington County Sheriff's Department, Pennington County Prosecutors and Parole Officers and Judges
From: [Your Name]

We are residents of Oceti Sakowin treaty territory, Mni Luzahan/Rapid City, and Pennington County. We ask that addressed officials immediately take the steps outlined below to protect the public health and ensure basic human needs are met for everyone during this time of crisis. Because this is a complex and evolving crisis, multiple steps at different levels are required to handle the fallout.

Many members of our community signed contracts committing to pay rent or make loan or mortgage payments under much different socio-economic circumstances. Now many of us are either out of work or compelled to continue working in non-essential services in order to make payments to landlords and creditors, resulting in unnecessary social contact and increasing risks to our own health and the community spread of COVID-19. In addition, the criminal justice system continues to make unnecessary contacts with and detainments of community members. This affects all of us.

On March 18, 2020, President Trump ordered the Department of Housing and Urban Development to suspend evictions and foreclosures through the end of April. Many cities, including New York, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and others are considering or have put in place eviction bans.

Further, the ACLU of South Dakota “is asking that officials respond to recommendations put forth by public health experts, specifically calling for the immediate release from prisons and jails of communities identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention, to prevent a public health crisis.” [1]

We commend these leadership decisions already taken in our community:

* Rapid City’s recent decision to suspend city utility shut-offs during the COVID-19 crisis [2]

* The South Dakota Supreme Court’s declaration of a Judicial Emergency [3]

* The 7th Circuit Court actions to reduce the jail population by reviewing bond requirements for non-violent offenders, prioritizes court cases for those being held in jail, and excuse no-shows except circuit court violent felonies [4]

* Decisions from Black Hills Energy, Xcel Energy, Midcontinent Communications, and Montana-Dakota Utilities to temporarily suspend nonpayment disconnections [5][6][7][8]

During this COVID-19 crisis, we call for these additional actions from the authorities:

Rapid City Mayor, Council, and Police Department:

* Ensure there is adequate shelter available for ALL during this time of crisis. This protects the public health by ensuring that everyone is able to maintain the recommended social distancing, and allows the community to deliver food and other supplies to those in need without large gatherings. Many hotel rooms will be vacant during this crisis as people follow recommendations to limit travel; we ask the city to immediately take steps, as other states and cities have done, to repurpose vacant hotel rooms as shelter for those in need.

* Place a moratorium on all arrests for minor and nonviolent offenses and citations in order to reduce social contact.

Pennington County Sheriff’s Department:

* Ensure a moratorium on all evictions and arrests for minor offenses.

* “... ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.” [1]

Rapid City and Pennington County Department of Justice:

* Follow the recommendations of the South Dakota ACLU designed to reduce mandated social contact in the court system and to reduce the jail population [9], including the following:

* “Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases in which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.” [1]

* “Probation and Parole Agents and Parole Boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the prison population as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.” [1]

* “Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily postpone that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.” [1]

We ask Pennington County Commissioners, Mayor Allender and the Rapid City Common Council to make the following mandates to local businesses, landowners, and banks:

Call on Rapid City and Pennington County landlords and property management companies to:

* Offer an immediate moratorium on rent for tenants affected by COVID-19. Many tenants live paycheck to paycheck, and with businesses closing and jobs turning away workers, many tenants will be simply unable to pay.

Call on Rapid City and Pennington County banks to:

* Offer an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and allow homeowners and small business loan holders, especially those in the service industry or at high-risk for COVID19, a temporary, penalty-free, reprieve from loan payments.

Call on Black Hills utility companies, such as Black Hills Energy, Xcel Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities, and the City of Rapid City:

* Forgive utility debts and waive reconnect fees for families in addition to discontinuing shut-offs, with priority for high risk clients, low-income families, and those employed in the service industry.

Finally we ask Pennington County Officials, Mayor Allender and the Rapid City Council to call on Governor Kristi Noem to do the following:

* Enforce an immediate moratorium on housing foreclosures in South Dakota.

* Direct banks to suspend loan payments for borrowers affected by COVID-19.

* Instruct landlords to waive rent payments for tenants.

* “... grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.” [1]

The way we will get through this global health crisis is together.

Signed sincerely,

Members of the West River Housing Coalition
Residents of Mni Luzahan/Rapid City
Residents all across Oceti Sakowin Territory and the state of South Dakota

[1] https://www.aclusd.org/en/press-releases/aclu-south-dakota-demands-release-prisons-and-jails-communities-vulnerable-covid-19

[2] https://www.rcgov.org/rapid-city-news-room/city-shares-important-information-regarding-coronavirus-covid-19-7819.html

[3] https://ujs.sd.gov/uploads/news/OrderDeclaringJudicialEmergency.pdf

[4] https://ujs.sd.gov/uploads/news/COVID19SeventhCircuitOrderProtocol.pdf

[5] https://www.blackhillsenergy.com/safety/response-covid-19-your-safety-our-top-priority

[6] https://www.xcelenergy.com/covid-19_response

[7] https://www.midco.com/covid-19-response/

[8] https://www.montana-dakota.com/in-the-community/covid-19-response/

[9] https://www.aclusd.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/aclu_coronavirus_-_criminal_justice_stakeholders_-_march_18_2020.pdf