Charleston Forum: Panelists discuss need for change in SC criminal justice system, new survey results

Charleston County News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- The Charleston Forum held a roundtable discussion Wednesday that focused on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Equity in South Carolina.

The panel, moderated by News 2’s Carolyn Murray, responded to issues such as policing, law enforcement accountability, pretrial justice, and punishment and rehabilitation.

Panelists included Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Founder of GAR Inc. Gary Raney, Founder and CEO of Soteria Community Development Corporation Jerry Blassingame, and Criminal Justice Director for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Laurie Garduque.

The panel opened with a discussion on a recent survey conducted by the Charleston Forum that revealed strong community consensus on the need for reforms in law enforcement and criminal justice.

On the issue of law enforcement and accountability, roughly 80% of respondents said they support certain strategies like continuing education and training for officers on racial bias, de-escalation training, consequences for failure to use body cameras, and hosting community gatherings for officers and residents.

Solicitor Wilson noted that the City of Charleston Police Department and North Charleston Police Department has undergone a racial bias audit.

Panelists also discussed excessive force issues and how to deal with officers who use inappropriate levels of force. South Carolina is one of nine states that currently has no statute that addresses excessive force by law enforcement.

“We need to codify the state of mind that’s required to hold an officer accountable when they commit misconduct,” Wilson said.

The conversation then moved into a discussion of Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC). The Charleston County CJCC is a group of elected and senior officials, community leaders, law enforcement leaders, judicial and court leadership, behavioral health professionals, and victim and legal advocates who are committed to making improvements in the criminal justice system.

Charleston CJCC was one of 191 applicants across 42 states to apply to participate in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which aims to reimagine and rebuild local criminal justice systems by reducing incarceration and increasing equity for all. Through this challenge, Charleston CJCC identified some specific policies and practices that lead to over-incarceration and need to be changed. These included what types of charges were subject to arrest as opposed to warnings, when summons were appropriate in lieu of arrests, the courts’ ability to hold timely trials, and access to public offenders in a defendant’s first court appearance.

The Charleston CJCC also set up a crisis stabilization center which provides an option for deflection and diversion instead of arrest.

“There is much to applaud about what’s going on in Charleston,” Garduque said. “I have seen CJCC’s in counties across the United States established, but none quite as dynamic and instrumental at making change

Next, the panel tackled pretrial issues like the bail/bond system which 74% of local survey respondents said they supporting reforming. Wilson praised the CJCC for its efforts to institute reforms to this system, without any statutory changes, but noted that because South Carolina currently has no pretrial services, the bail/bond system cannot be given up yet.

The last topic discussed during the panel was that of punishment and rehabilitation. Ganey, who is a former sheriff of Boise, Idaho, stressed the importance of rehabilitation starting at initial contact, rather than as a function of the Department of Corrections. In addition, Ganey said law enforcement should be utilizing more personalized risk assessments for offenders.

“The goal has to be returning that offender to the community as early as possible with the greatest success possible,” he said.

Blassingame agreed that support, education, and vocational training are critical to reducing recidivism rates, but said that funding these programs can be difficult.

“A lot of funding is going into research, I appreciate that and it’s really good, but we need money on the ground,” Blassingame said.

He also emphasized the importance of having impacted individuals, like those who have been previously incarcerated, be part of the ongoing conversations about law enforcement and criminal justice reform.

“Those [people] are closest to the problem and closest to the solution, but furthest from the resources and power,” Blassingame said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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